Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1950)

vlcsnap-2020-01-16-00h05m26s354The immediate post-war era was one marked by fear and anxiety. The world had turned upside down, food was scarce, and desperation had provoked a widespread moral decline which rendered compassion a luxury many thought they could ill afford. Yet, in hitting rock bottom there was also the opportunity to rebuild the world better than it had been before. Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Pen Itsuwarazu Boryoku no Machi), is one of many pro-democracy films arriving in the wake of Japan’s new constitution and makes an unlikely hero of the local newspaperman as the sole means of speaking truth to power in the fierce belief that the people have a right to know.

Tojo, a small town Northwest of Tokyo, was once the centre of the silk trade but as the industry declined, it gradually became home to gangs and a hub for wartime black market shenanigans. The sad truth is that the growing nouveau riche middle-classes profiting from post-war shadiness have more or less got the town sewn up. The corrupt police force is in cahoots with the gangsters who call themselves a “police support organisation” and make a point of wining and dining the local police chief, while also making sure the local paper is firmly in their pocket. The trouble starts when rookie reporter Kita (Yasumi Hara) is invited to a policeman’s ball and figures out the whole thing is sponsored by the silk traders’ union, which he thinks is not quite right. He takes what he’s learned back to his editor and is warned off the story but publishes something anyway, quickly becoming a target for prominent “politician” Onishi (Masao Mishima).

Street of Violence opens with onscreen text taken from the press code which emphasises that mass media has a duty to preserve the truth. Kita’s paper had been in league with the police and the gangsters enabling the atmosphere of casual violence which is gradually consuming the town. Kita, a new recruit, is not yet inured to the way things are and immediately thinks his duty is to blow a whistle, most obviously on the corrupt police force and judiciary. He is only allowed to do so because the previous editor stepped down and a similarly idealistic older gentleman (Takashi Shimura) from out of town has taken over. He decides to fight back, standing up to the crypto-fascist goons by continuing to publish the truth about the links between the police, black market silk traders, gangsters, and the rest of the local press who eventually gain the courage to join him.

Onishi continues to masquerade as a “legitimate businessman” and “respectable politician” claiming that he’s “striving for democracy” to help the “downtrodden”, but is also responsible for directly targeting Kita’s mother and sister in an attempt to intimidate him. The editor assigns another reporter, Kawasaki (Ryo Ikebe), to keep Kita safe and starts trying to find locals who will consent to be interviewed about gang intimidation while Kita’s friends from the Youth Association generate a kind of resistance movement holding protests and handing out flyers condemning the atmosphere of violence which has ordinary citizens turning off their lights and avoiding going out after dark to protect themselves from thuggery.

The silent cause of all this strife is of course post-war privation which has made the blackmarket the only means of survival for those otherwise starving but has also given free rein to selfish immorality. The Onishis of the world, the spineless police chief, and the cynical local press, have all abnegated their human responsibilities in wilfully taking advantage of a bad situation to further their own cause. When the press chooses not to turn a blind eye to entrenched corruption, it raises a flag that ordinary people can follow. Too intimidated to speak out, the townspeople had been living in fear but post-war youth has the courage to say no and demand a better future. A mass rally crying out “democracy” and insisting on an end to the cronyism and the corrupt systems of pre-war feudalism produces a people power revolution that can’t be ignored, forcing Onishi into submission, and a clean out of corrupt law enforcement. But, the earnest voice over reminds us, the victory is only partial – violence still exists and will rise again when it thinks no one’s looking. The press, most of all, cannot afford to look away if “democracy” is to be maintained.


Once More (今ひとたびの, Heinosuke Gosho, 1947)

(c) 東宝

Gosho once more posterOf the Japanese golden age directors, there were few who’d “happily” gone along with the requirements of making films under a militarist regime. Heinosuke Gosho, however, must rank among the most recalcitrant in his unwavering refusal to compromise his convictions in order to preserve his career. Most of the scripts he submitted to the censor’s board were rejected in the preliminary stages though he was able to ruffle a few feathers with the few films he did manage to make if only for his skilful ability to skirt around the promised propagandistic overtones. It also “helped” that Gosho had become seriously ill with tuberculosis in 1937 which perhaps protected him from official interference and, in any case, removed him from the film industry for three years while he recovered. Nevertheless, he felt keenly that he and others had a duty and an opportunity to turn the tables in the post-war era, advancing the ideology of humanism to create a better, fairer world than the one which had descended into so much ugliness and chaos.

In fact one of the reasons Gosho decided to film Once More (今ひとたびの, Ima Hitotabi no) in 1947 under the American occupation was to counter the view held among some young people that there had been no active opposition to militarism. Gosho and his screenwriter Keinosuke Uekusa chose to adapt a heavily political novel by Jun Takami which painted itself as a romantic tragedy of resistance in which its leftist heroes find themselves carrying the legacy of defeat onward into the post-war world. Gosho depoliticises Takami’s tale and reconstructs it as a romantic melodrama with a more positive resolution, but is careful to preserve the fierce idealism of the conscientious students relentlessly protesting Japanese Imperialism whilst trying to advance the course of social justice in an increasingly oppressive environment.

The tale begins in 1936 as a group of students prepares to graduate. Nogami (Ichiro Ryuzaki), a doctor, has turned down a lucrative university post to minister to the poor. Unlike his friends Tanaka (Koji Kawamura) and Kambara (Hyo Kitazawa), Nogami is not an activist or left wing agitator but has a strong belief in humanistic socialism and a conviction that he has a duty to ensure his skills are available to those who need them most. Invited to a play directed by Kambara which is being performed to raise money for socialist causes, Nogami accidentally wanders into the dressing room of the leading lady – Akiko (Mieko Takamine), a wealthy socialite, and falls in love at first sight. Akiko too takes a liking to Nogami and invites him to her birthday party despite his rather odd behaviour after the play, but he finds it impossible to get on with her upperclass friends and eventually leaves. The pair advance and retreat, but their romance is frustrated by the times in which they live, politics, and their own senses of personal integrity which encourage them to willingly sacrifice their happiness in acknowledgement of living in an unhappy world.

Despite their original, electric attraction the obstacles surrounding the love of Akiko and Nogami may seem insurmountable, chief among them being the obvious class difference between the pair. Nogami, somewhat contrary to his humanistic ideals, has a mild prejudice against the bourgeoise, believing them to be selfish, unfeeling, and existing in their own bubble hermetically sealed away from the kind of suffering he sees everyday at the clinic. Yet he cannot forget Akiko who harbours no prejudice towards him because of his humble origins (though her friends and family make no secret of theirs) and feels similarly about her own social class, overcome with guilt that she lives in such comfort while others suffer. Eventually Akiko joins the cause, becoming a left-wing agitator and even getting herself arrested and branded a “Red Lady” in the papers (further annoying her very confused social circle). Unlike Nogami she is also subject to a kind of social and gender based oppression in which she is under constant pressure to marry her longstanding fiancé, Sakon (Haruo Tanaka), and conform to the requirements of her position. Nogami is “free” to choose to live a life of selfless altruism in a way that Akiko is not and will struggle to be throughout the rest of the picture.

Yet time and again it is the times which frustrate their romance. Akiko and Nogami repeatedly make plans to meet, but one of them is arrested and prevented from arriving leaving the other assuming the worst – that they have been abandoned, romantically and ideologically. Matters aren’t helped by Nogami’s natural diffidence and awkwardness coupled with his rigid code of honour which makes it impossible for him to pursue Akiko in any normal way, leaving her confused and later at the mercy of her controlling family. In the end it is their own senses of personal integrity which prevent their union, as a friend bound for the front points out when he, essentially, tells them to get over themselves and embrace happiness rather than overthinking an emotional response and ruining it in the process.

As much as Gosho’s central tenet could be boiled down to “don’t think, feel”, he does argue for compassionate rationality and considered fairness and understanding between people. Thus he removes the Marxist overtones from the original novel because his conflicts aren’t “political” but between justice and injustice; he simply sees unfairness and opposes it, placing his faith in the absolute truth of positive emotion and human connection to eradicate the false barriers of rational civility and irrational oppression. For Gosho, love wins, every time. 


Vestige (面影, Heinosuke Gosho, 1948)

vlcsnap-2017-06-25-03h44m26s663Master of the shomingeki, Heinosuke Gosho goes upscale for the post-war romantic melodrama, Vestige (面影, omokage), even if he goes out of his way to add a layer of expressionistic imagery. Inspired by Gosho’s own experiences, Vestige has an air of melancholy and of frustrated dreams but also of resignation as the two not quite lovers at the centre agree to quell their romantic yearnings and preserve their conventional, bourgeois lives at the expense of greater happiness.

When Kawasaki goes to stay at the seaside retreat of his former professor and mentor Inagaki, he is immediately struck by the professor’s much younger wife, Sachiko, who is the spitting image of his own whom he lost in the war three years previously. Inagaki more or less lives at his spacious seaside villa along with Sachiko, her older sister Fukuko, and Fukuko’s two children. Having married late, Inagaki is a happy man and his home life seems settled and pleasant if conventional.

The couple quickly realise that there’s something deeply sad about Kawasaki, but they attribute it to having lost his wife in such an abrupt manner. Kawasaki is indeed in mourning and nursing feelings of guilt over not having appreciated his wife enough while she was alive – the marriage was an arranged one with a grain of resentment at its core, but still Kawasaki came to be fond of his wife even if his feelings only cemented themselves after she died. Kawasaki keeps his growing feelings for Sachiko to himself though their growing intensity eventually begins to pain him.

Sachiko mainly remains unaware of Kawasaki’s emotional turmoil and she and the professor are secretly hatching a plan to suggest a semi-arranged marriage between Kawasaki and the couple’s niece, Kaoru. Not only insensitive in the extreme, the idea leaves Kawasaki feeling hoodwinked and confused. Kaoru may be approaching marriageable age by the standards of the time but she’s very much a little girl, running around in shorts and pigtails with girlish glee. Even if they don’t intend the marriage right away, Sachiko and Inagaki have almost tried to foist a child bride on a man still eaten up by guilt at not having been a good husband to a woman he only realised he loved after she died. Unsurprisingly, Kawasaki feels even more awkward and begins to make noises about going home.

Like many romantic melodrama players, the relationship between Sachiko and Kawasaki is prefigured by a musical bonding in which Sachiko sings the lyrics to the only song Kawasaki can play on the piano which was taught to him by his pianist wife. Though Sachiko had been happy enough in her marriage, her surfacing feelings for Kawasaki who is, to put it bluntly a more age appropriate partner, are a surprise and a problem. As in Brief Encounter, Sachiko may not have known such violent emotions could happen to ordinary people and now they have arrived there is little she can do about them.

Keeping her true feelings well under-wraps, Sachiko only breaks briefly after Kawasaki has opened the floodgates by confessing his love when she finds the photo of his late wife  and realises that she looks just like her. Hurt and confused, Sachiko is upset by an odd kind of jealousy as she is forced to wonder how much of Kawasaki’s feelings for her are really those for his late wife. Kawasaki seems uncertain, dreaming of Akiko but seeing Sachiko, unable to separate the two women in his mind.

Inagaki, a magnanimous if wounded husband, begins to see a side of his much younger wife that he had not seen before. Fukuko is the first to spot the innocent bond developing between Kawasaki and her sister but trusts Sachiko to do the right thing whilst feeling sorry for lonely piano playing widower. Inagaki truly loves his wife. Proclaiming that if she isn’t happy than he can’t be either, he comforts and protects Sachiko rather than trying to keep her through violence or anger. Despite his original happiness there’s a part of him which feels guilt towards Sachiko for marrying her at such a late age, as if he’s robbed her of her youth. An odd conversation with Kaoru in which he delicately tries to talk to her about the idea of Kawasaki as a husband backfires when he’s forced to realise she’s far too young to talk about this and also that Kawasaki is a much better fit for his wife than his niece. His solution is a painful but pragmatic one, asking Kawasaki to leave he hopes that all of these unwelcome, destabilising feelings can be put back in the box and forgotten about once the intrusive presence of the outsider has been eliminated.

This is, indeed, the conventional wisdom but as in many of his later films Gosho undercuts it through suggesting that it’s never just as simple as sealing off one’s feelings and living happily in the way society dictates. Inagaki might have made the point that “happy” marriages are not always happy – his own was one of ordinary pleasantness which might have grown into a deep love rather than a great romance, but Sachiko’s heart has been opened and being forced to close it so definitively cannot have any other result than breaking it permanently. Resentfully snapping at the menfolk as they agree to shake hands and forget all about all of this love stuff, Sachiko turns her back on her husband weeping at her sister’s confirmation that Kawasaki will never return, only later returning to his side to light his cigarette as he picks up the book titled “A Theory of Happiness” which now seems like a very ironic gift from the sensitive Kawasaki.

Carried along by the lush romantic theme of the folk song which brings together Kawasaki, Akiko, and Sachiko, Vestige is a romantic melodrama of the highest order but Gosho attempts to elevate it by frequent use of expressionist imagery from super imposition and cuts to crashing waves on silent beaches. The war is barely mentioned and little seen – it does not seem to have touched Inagaki’s upperclass life in his idyllic beachside paradise, but the spectre is always there as it haunts Kawasaki with the cruel randomness of his wife’s death mixed with his guilt both about being unable to save her and not having treated her well enough when she was alive. The conventional life wins out, sanctioned bonds are maintained, holding strong against the forces of “irrational” emotion but Gosho imbues the final scenes with a heavier sadness than just that of people sacrificing themselves in service of a social code. These are people already trying to live life along a “theory” of happiness and failing, pretending to find fulfilment in embracing conventionalty but finding only pain and suffering in being unable to acknowledge their true feelings.


 

The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1955)

vlcsnap-2016-07-09-01h53m10s460Hiroshi Shimizu is well known as one of the best directors of children in the history of Japanese cinema, equalled only by the contemporary director Hirokazu Koreeda. The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Shiinomi Gakuen) is one of the primary examples of his genius as it takes on the controversial themes of the place of the disabled in society and especially how children and their parents can come to terms with the many difficulties they now face.

The Yamamotos are a happy family with two sons. However, their elation at the birth of their first child soon turned to tragedy as the boy became seriously ill with polio. Times being what they were, the treatment is not completely effective and although their son thankfully survived, he did so with a lamed leg. Now an older child, Yudo walks with a crutch and is constantly left out or bullied by his fellow children. After their second son, Teruhiko, also contracts the disease and is left even more seriously affected than his brother, the Yamamotos decide to open a school for survivors of polio where they can play together, learning how to live with the effects of the disease, free of the stigma which plagues them in their everyday lives.

Yudo just wants to play baseball and the other kids tell him he can if he brings a catcher’s mitt of his own but when he does they take it away from him and use it themselves while he sits and sadly watches them play. When his dad arrives and tries to tell them off, the kids form a mob and all leave together, fake limping as they go. Children are monsters, and often far less forgiving of difference than their adult counterparts (though it has to be said that the parents of other children are hardly blameless here). It’s not surprising that Mr. Yamamoto would want to protect his son by taking him out of this harsh environment where he’s constantly reminded of his disability and a target for the other kids’ cruel games.

The Shiinomi School may be at odds with modern thinking, but its heart is definitely in the right place. The Yamamotos are operating from a humanist perspective – they want to provide a place which helps the children to grow up strong and independent, fully able to cope with their various disabilities, where they can also escape the extreme prejudice which infects society in general. This prejudice is best brought out not by Yudo’s treatment by the other boys, but by the sad case of Tetsuo whose father had so little idea what to do with him that he used to tie him to a pole. Tetsuo’s dad has since remarried and his new wife has no intention of looking after a disabled child so they’ve brought him to Shiinomi with the intention of abandoning him there. Mr. Yamamoto is shocked and originally refuses to take the boy in protest at the idea of a father who wouldn’t want to try and do everything for his son, but eventually reconsiders when he thinks about what the boy is going back to.

Unintentionally segregating the children has some benefits in the short term but there are those who may feel that it sends a message that the problem is with the children and not with the society which rejects them. Perhaps by giving these children a happy childhood and protecting them from the cruelty of others it’s also leaving them unprepared to deal with that same cruelty once they come of age. In any case Shimizu shoots with his trademark humanity, valiantly showing the children singing loudly and learning to enjoy their lives despite their many hardships. From tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow, the Yamamotos want nothing more than to raise these children in love and acceptance and, if the final scene of the children walking down the lane alone with a song on their lips is anything to go by, you could say their efforts have been richly rewarded.