Seven Seas (七つの海, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1931-1932)

vlcsnap-2017-02-19-01h57m24s364Hiroshi Shimizu is best remembered for his socially conscious, nuanced character pieces often featuring sympathetic portraits of childhood or the suffering of those who find themselves at the mercy of society’s various prejudices. Nevertheless, as a young director at Shochiku, he too had to cut his teeth on a number of program pictures and this two part novel adaptation is among his earliest. Set in a broadly upper middle class milieu, Seven Seas (七つの海, Nanatsu no Umi) is, perhaps, closer to his real life than many of his subsequent efforts but notably makes class itself a matter for discussion as its wealthy elites wield their privilege like a weapon.

Split into two parts each around an hour long, Seven Seas begins with the chapter entitled Virginity in which we meet the closely interconnected circle of friends around whom the narrative turns. Yumie (Hiroko Kawasaki) is a young woman from a middle class background but fallen on hard times as her father, a former government official, is now bedridden and supporting the family only on his pension. She is about to announce her engagement to the upperclass boy Yuzuru (Ureo Egawa) but when his playboy brother Takehiko (Joji Oka) returns from abroad he takes a fancy to her himself, eventually raping her whilst she is a guest in their house. Devastated, Yumie’s father marches over to sort things out but even more tragic events occur, breaking the family forever as Yumie’s sister Miwako (Kinuko Wakamizu) has a breakdown and is committed to an asylum. In desperate need of money, Yumie eventually agrees to become the wife of the man who has so brutalised her, though she also contrives to turn the situation to her advantage in an act of revenge.

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Part two is entitled “Chastity” as this is to be Yumie’s primary method of resistance. Refusing her new husband his conjugal rights, Yumie spends his money with gay abandon making huge donations to her sister’s hospital and eventually also providing a kind of “salary” for her husband’s long term mistress whom he has been seeing for some years and had neglected to inform about his marriage. Meanwhile, Yumie’s friend Ayako (Sachiko Murase) has also fallen in love with Yuzuru who is still nursing a broken heart having separated from his family and taken refuge with the couple’s friends working in a sports equipment shop in the city.

Unusually for a Shimizu hero, Yuzuru is an uncomplicated, innately good person who instantly rejects his family following their heinous treatment of the woman he loves, remaining committed to her even after she has been assaulted by his own brother. This decision is, however, difficult as he no longer has access to the familial fortune and has few options for earning his own. He eventually finds work as a French translator but it doesn’t pay enough to make up for all the extra expenses incurred as a result of his brother’s actions from the loss of Yumie’s father’s pension to the ongoing medical costs for her sister’s treatment. Times being what they are, moralising forces creep into the frame suggesting all of this “made right” by Takehiko doing the “honourable” thing and marrying the woman he’s “bought” by force.

The Yagibashi family think they can sweep all of this under the carpet by throwing money at Yumie and otherwise ignoring the problem but this is not good enough for the morality police. Forced to marry her rapist, Yumie maintains an air of cool distain, detailing her plans for vengeance in her daily diary and arming herself with a pistol in case Takehiko tries his old tricks once again. Takehiko, a vain and selfish man, seems to be filled with a kind of resentment born of his class in which he remains a perpetual child controlled by his father who holds all of the purse strings. He does at least attempt to be a proper husband to Yumie, defending her from his snobbish parents and providing her with everything she asks for but he retains his tendency to believe that he can behave however he likes because he’s the eldest son of the wealthy Yagibashi family. Yumie may be reduced in circumstances but thanks to her father’s position would be considered from a “good family”, yet to Takehiko and the Yagibashis she is just another faceless person from the lower orders, unworthy of consideration or compassion and simply one of the exploitable masses.

Takehiko is also the bearer of the frequently ambivalent attitude to the Western world found in many of Shimizu’s other films of the period. Returning from a trip abroad, he belittles another woman in the carriage for her supposed snobbery. Having been abroad, they say, she feels herself superior to ordinary Japanese – unlike the two of them, obviously. Ironically when they arrive Takehiko discovers that the woman in question is the daughter of his former professor, recently returned from studying music in Italy. The other major foreigner we meet is Ayako’s boss at the newspaper where she has a good job as a female reporter. The diffident Englishman attempts to confess his love for her, leaping straight into a proposal. Shocked, Ayako eventually informs him that unfortunately she’s in love with someone else – Yuzuru. Reacting badly, he tries to stop Ayako from leaving but once she does he abruptly shoots himself! Unusual passion for an Englishman, this side of foreignness is a definite cultural difference though one perhaps imbued with a degree of entitlement that also speaks of a kind of oppressive arrogance.

This is however, contrasted with Yuzuru’s gentle career as a translator of French. These creative, cultural influences seem to be broadly positive ones adding to Japan’s already impressive artistic history which brings both pleasure and new ways of thinking which will help the fledgling nation interact with the new global order. The Yagibashis’ dependence on their inherited wealth and social status proves their downfall when they are the subject of an ongoing scandal but the family name is, in part, saved by Yuzuru’s artistic endeavours in turning his traumatic life story into a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel. The creative instinct triumphs over the passivity of the established order.

Remaining mostly straightforward in terms of approach, Shimizu experiments with his trademark tracking shots coupled with dissolves which are unusually impressive and innovative in terms of their setting. The narrative may be melodramatic but the setting is naturalistic, giving an ordinary picture of these upper class and lower middle class lives as people lived them in the early 1930s. From crowded city streets and rooms above shops to spacious country mansions these class divisions are neatly drawn though it’s perhaps interesting that friendship groups have begun to ignore these lines in spite of the differing possibilities offered to each of the differently troubled friends. As in much of Shimizu’s output, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, fulfilling the need for narrative justice as Yumie finds an unusual path for restitution after having been so cruelly misused by those who held her existence so cheaply as to rob her of her future, family and dignity solely because of their own sense of social superiority.


 

Street Without End (限りなき舗道, Mikio Naruse, 1934)

Street Witout EndNaruse’s final silent movie coincided with his last film made at Shochiku where his down to earth artistry failed to earn him the kind of acclaim that the big hitters like Ozu found with studio head Shiro Kido. Street Without End (限りなき舗道, Kagirinaki Hodo) was a project no one wanted. Adapted from a popular newspaper serial about the life of a modern tea girl in contemporary Tokyo, it smacked a little of low rent melodrama but after being given the firm promise that after churning out this populist piece he could have free reign on his next project, Naruse accepted the compromise. Unfortunately, the agreement was not honoured and Naruse hightailed it to Photo Chemical Laboratories (later Toho) where he spent the next thirty years.

Although Street Without End is a conventional melodrama in many senses, it’s also quite a complex one playing with multilayered dualities and symbolic devices. After beginning with some brief pillow shots of the real city streets, we meet the stars of the show, Sugiko and Kesako, who are both waitresses in a local tea room. Whilst walking together, Sugiko is presented with an offer from a movie studio currently looking for new talent but isn’t really convinced, though the money would come in handy for her younger brother’s college tuition. A little while later she gets another offer from her boyfriend, Harada, who wants to get married as his parents are trying to pressure him into an arranged marriage at home. Sugiko agrees but is knocked over by a car on her way to meet him with the result that Harada thinks she’s changed her mind and goes home alone. Slowly she grows closer to the man who knocked her over, Yamanouchi, and eventually marries him instead but quickly finds herself out of place in his upperclass world.

Kesako, by contrast, ends up picking up on Sugiko’s job offer and joining the studio herself. She takes her unsuccessful artist boyfriend with her though their relationship suffers as she falls in with the studio crowd. Both women get what they thought they wanted, only to discover it to be not what they wanted at all.

Sugiko’s story is the main thrust of the narrative as she marries up through misfortune after Yamanouchi carelessly runs her over. He himself plays the part of the sensitive nobleman who’s bullied by his more conservative mother and sister who’ve picked out a girl exactly like them for him to marry. In a gesture that’s probably born out of rebellion rather than love, Yamanouchi brings Sugiko home as his wife but then leaves her to the mercy of the people he most feared himself. An ordinary working class woman, Sugiko quickly angers her mother in law by treating the servants like actual people and not having the poise expected of a Yamanouchi wife. Yamanouchi is too soft to defend himself, let alone his choice of wife, and so Sugiko’s life eventually becomes untenable sending Yamanouchi off the rails with it. Naruse includes a less than subtle intertitle here which states “EVEN TODAY, FEUDAL NOTIONS OF FAMILY CRUSH THE PURE LOVE OF YOUNG PEOPLE IN JAPAN”, which makes his position plain but seems a little strong for the anti-romantic nature of the relationship between the rebound Sugiko and the “getting back at mother” Yamanouchi.

Both Yamanouchi and Harada were interested in Sugiko as shield against an unwanted arranged marriage. Sugiko was unconvinced by both offers but her decision to marry Yamanouchi is one which ultimately went against her unconventional nature (as borne out by her unconventional decision to leave it). Sugiko and Kesako appear as mirrors of each other as Kesako nabs Sugiko’s job offer and starts to climb the studio ladder. Just as Sugiko finds the life of an upperclass housewife is not all she thought it would be, so Kesako begins to find the acting profession, which she’d previously dreamed of, equally unfulfilling. By the time we loop round the end, we arrive at the beginning again with both ladies in pretty much the same space they were in before though perhaps a little clearer about what it is they want from life. The final scene is one more of acceptance and self realisation than it is about moving forward, but then there’s a curious reappearance of a familiar face on a passing bus. It remains to be seen if this is hope leaving town or merely circling.


Street Without End is the fifth and final film included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.

No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Mikio Naruse, 1932)

No blood relationNaruse apparently directed six other films in-between Flunky, Work Hard and No Blood Relation (生さぬ仲, Nasanunaka) but we’ll likely never see any of them again. Adapting a “Shinpa” play (a new kind of Western style melodrama focusing on the real lives of everyday people), Naruse addresses a theme which later becomes central to his cinematic output – the trials and tribulations of women in contemporary society. This time we have two fully grown women tussling over the affections of a little girl who herself seems to have little input into the situation.

After a brief introductory sequence in which we witness the accidentally humorous escapades of a pair of petty crooks, we meet the sister of one of them who happens to be returning ex-pat and successful Hollywood actress, Tamae. It turns out that Tamae has come back to Japan after making her fortune in the movies hoping to reunite with the daughter she left behind six years ago.

However, her ex-husband, Atsumi, has remarried and the daughter, Shigeko, believes the second wife, Masako, is her real mother. Although the family are very happy together there is tension in the air as Atsumi’s company is running into trouble in this period of economic instability and he’s about to reveal he’s gone bankrupt. Atsumi’s mother does not take this well as she’s used to the upper middle class lifestyle and throws something of a hissy fit at being shamed in this way. Masako, by contrast, remains stoic and says she can bear the worst of what comes only she doesn’t want Atsumi to do anything illegal to try and solve their money problems and she doesn’t want to see Shigeko suffer. Her maternal feelings are further borne out when she is injured diving in front of an oncoming car which threatens to hit her daughter as she stops to pick up her doll in the middle of the road.

The problems continue pile up and Tamae uses her money as a lever to try and prise Shigeko away from her step-mother via the greedy grandma but the little girl was an infant when her birth mother left so she simply doesn’t remember Tamae and repeatedly asks to be allowed to go home to her “mother”. It’s understandable how much this would hurt Tamae who claims she’s only returned to Japan because she’s been unable to forget her daughter, yet her daughter never even knew her. If she was expecting some kind of cosmic connection it does not occur and if she truly wanted to rebuild a relationship with her child, what amounts to a virtual kidnapping was probably not the best way to go about it.

At heart it’s a tug of love between two women – the one who gave birth to a child and then abandoned it (perhaps harsh words, but no concrete reason other than a man and America are ever revealed), and the one who later raised it and came to love it as her own though shares no blood connection. Masako is the faithful Japanese wife, devoted to her family and just a very good, decent person which contrasts nicely with the ferocity of her rival – a modern woman, adulteress and movie star who thinks her money can enable her to take back what she previously gave up. For all that, it’s difficult to not to feel sorry for Tamae as her daughter continues to reject her. Even if the way she’s going about things is not sensible, her maternal emotions and the passion, desperation and even in part grief and regret are all too real.

Of course, what gets forgotten here is the plight of little Shigeko who never had any reason to believe Masako, who obviously loves her dearly, was not her real mother. Extremely confused and probably frightened, she just doesn’t understand why she’s being separated from her mum and being forced to hang out with this strange woman. Masako can’t get to see Shigeko after grandma has removed her from the house, but no one else stops to think about what sort of effect this is all having on a confused little girl who just wants to go home.

The depression is more of a backdrop here and even if Atsumi ultimately ends up feeling the brunt of it, money troubles are only a small part of the question at hand. Naruse doesn’t experiment as much as in Flunky, Work Hard but throws in a few impressive tracking sequences across open rooms and adds some rapid zooms as the two women have silent arguments over their relationships to Shigeko. Without giving too much away, the ending undercuts the degree of nuance Naruse had been trying add in ensuring that both women were drawn in a suitably complex manner, provoking sympathy and understanding for everyone caught up in this complicated situation (well, except perhaps for the bumbling crooks who are a little surplus to requirements).

The finale itself almost feels tacked on from an entirely different film with its sudden cheerfulness and abrupt closure as the original family is repaired thanks to a sudden monetary atonement and subsequent self-exile from the originally corrupting influence of the first wife. In many ways a standard melodrama of the time, No Blood Relation perhaps doesn’t have much more to recommend it than as an early example of Naruse’s development but does offer strong performances from its leading ladies and an interesting take on an age old question.


No Blood Relation is the second of five films included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse box set.