A Wife Confesses (妻は告白する, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

Mountains are dangerous places in Japanese cinema. Yasuzo Masumura’s tense, claustrophobic courtroom noir A Wife Confesses (妻は告白する, Tsuma wa Kokuhaku Suru) was released in the same year as Toshio Sugie’s Death on the Mountain, adapted from a popular story by legendary mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto in which a veteran climber is ushered towards his death through a series of machinations by his friend which might or might not be regarded as “murderous” depending on your point of view. Masumura wants to ask us a similar question but from another angle as he puts a woman on trial not quite for the “murder” of her husband but the fact of her survival.

Opening outside the courthouse with a gum-chewing paparazzo, Masumura unwittingly makes us part of the baying mob watching intently as a young woman hides her face with her handbag while the press more than live up to their name, pinning her with questions about the salacious case at hand. Inside, however, he shifts the focus. We are now in the dock with Ayako (Ayako Wakao), looking up at the three men who will judge her for her “crime” from a literal moral high ground. A youngish widow, Ayako is charged with the murder of her husband who died during a freak mountain climbing accident. Caught between a handsome young man, Koda (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), and her abusive husband, Takigawa (Eitaro Ozawa), with no way up or down Ayako chose to cut the rope and let her husband fall. If she had not done so, both she and Koda would also be dead. Ayako is on trial because she refused to sacrifice herself for a wifely ideal. The question is, in many ways, if a woman’s or more to the point a wife’s life has worth, not just worth equal to that of her husband’s but any kind of worth at all. 

The first charge against Ayako is a lack of womanliness. A man at the scene testifies that they don’t usually allow wives or mothers to view bodies and Takigawa’s was in a particularly bad way but Ayako insisted on seeing it only to react with a calm he found suspicious. A policeman then echoes his sentiment, admitting that he arrested Ayako for her unwifeliness. “A wife should stick with her husband ’til the end no matter how tough it is” he says, adding that his own wife agrees with him. As her lawyer points out, had Ayako been a man, or the person below her on the rope a stranger, the policeman would not have arrested her but her refusal to die with her husband, which would have resulted in the “murder” of another man, is an arrestable offence. You can argue about the moralities of choosing to end someone else’s life to save your own, a kind of self defence permitted under Japanese law through the “necessity” legislation, but Ayako’s transgression is in believing that her life and her husband’s weigh the same and that she had a right to save herself. Many feel she should perhaps have cut the rope above her own head, saving Koda only in a lovers’ suicide with Takigawa. 

The policeman offers more grounds for suspicion having discovered that Ayako had taken out an insurance policy on her husband and hoped to profit from his “accidental” death, though as an act of premeditated murder this would certainly be quite an elaborate plot. Furthermore, the prosecution posit that she and Koda were having an affair but, for reasons which are not clear, Koda is not under suspicion or cited as a co-conspirator and is in fact testifying in her defence. He is also engaged to someone else, Rie (Haruko Mabuchi), though the marriage was arranged by his boss for strategic reasons because she is the daughter of a major client at their insurance firm and yes Koda drafted the policy which is currently being used as evidence against Ayako. All very Double Indemnity, but Ayako is certainly no cold and scheming Phyllis whether or not she made a conscious decision to free herself from a man who made her life a misery by literally cutting him loose. 

Yet Ayako’s victimisation is also used against her as further evidence of her unwomanly coldness. She testifies that she married Takigawa after he attempted to rape her and then proposed, confessing that she did so in order to escape a life of poverty that had already driven her into suicidal despair (she still has a vial of potassium cyanide she had taken from his office with just this in mind). She did not love him, but did her best to become a “good wife”, even beginning to wear kimono because he preferred it. Her predicament is no different than that of many other women who agreed to an arranged marriage and found themselves shackled to an unpleasant man with whom they could not get along but the marriage’s failure is laid squarely at Ayako’s feet for not trying hard enough and having insufficient love for the husband who treats her like a glorified maid, is cruel and emotionally abusive, and finally forces her to have an abortion against her will because he doesn’t want to spend money on a child. She asks for a divorce but he points out that as things stand a woman cannot escape a bad marriage without a husband’s consent and he has done nothing to break their marital contract and so to that extent he owns her. 

But for all she’s a cold woman who resented her husband and longed to be free of him, Ayako is also condemned for illicit passion in her secret love for Koda. Indeed we can see she is clearly fond of him, and in flashback we realise much of this is simply because he was kind to her though the extent of his kindness was only to the level of general civility. At heart, they are both “decent” people and so there is nothing more between them than unexpressed longing but still the kernel of their attraction remains and the prosecution has indeed found a grain of truth on which to found a motive for murder.

For his part, in another kind of film Koda would be the hero but here his “goodness” is intensely problematic in that he falls for Ayako precisely because of her suffering. His problem is that he later doubts her, swayed by arguments that paint her as a plotting femme fatale. Though amused by the whole affair, Koda’s boss warns him that women like Ayako are “trouble” and that he’s only been taken in because he is young and naive. Rie, meanwhile, is resentful and wounded, contemplating her own revenge but ultimately testifying in Ayako’s favour, she claims more for herself than for Koda or “justice” too embarrassed to take the stand and offer her own feminine “inferiority” as evidence against her romantic rival. Yet she later comes to admire her, seeing her as one who was bold enough to chase love at the expense of all else no longer caring what anyone might say or think. Ayako is the most liberated woman alive, and she would die for love but did not love her husband and so would not die for him. 

Koda is punished because he fell in love with an image of suffering womanhood but is afraid of Ayako’s transgressive femininity. He is conflicted in the knowledge that if she killed her husband her love for him may have been the reason, and is disturbed by her venality in that she would have taken the insurance money and lived well without finding it distasteful while he would have preferred to reject the settlement entirely lest it besmirch the innocence of their love. In real terms it doesn’t really matter why she did it, Ayako cut the rope and whether she did so out of an instinct for self preservation, in hate, or in love, the result is all the same. What she’s on trial for is defiance, that she acted, seized her own agency and made a choice to value her life over her husband’s which is still, as it turns out, a moral crime in the supposedly modern and democratic society of 1961. Masumura’s accusatory camera finds her pinned, confined, trapped at the edges of frames hiding her face with her single permitted feminine accessory while the subject of our judgemental gaze until the curtain finally closes leaving her in shadow but perhaps finally free of her cruel and oppressive society. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Warm Current (暖流, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

Never one to tread the beaten path, Yasuzo Masumura studied film abroad in Italy before, perhaps counter intuitively, entering the Japanese studio system apprenticing at Daiei where he’d remain until its bankruptcy in the early ‘70s forced him into freelancing. His 1957 debut Kisses was a response to the taiyozoku or sun tribe craze of nihilistic youth movies though it was in its own way quietly hopeful and even sweet, at least in contrast to some the more cynical views of romance which colour some of the director’s later work, but again despite being positioned as precursor to the New Wave is also very much in the classical tradition if owing something to contemporary European art house. Masumura’s second film Blue Sky Maiden continued in the same vein, an ostensibly cheerful take on Sirkian melodrama in which the plucky heroine finds self-actualisation while dealing with her difficult family history. Warm Current (暖流, Danryu), meanwhile, builds on the same Sirkian foundations, remaking a popular weepy which had proved a big hit for Kozaburo Yoshimura 20 years earlier, but further undercutting it with a sense of ironic inconsequentiality as the heroes engage in a background battle for the post-war future. 

The film opens with a suicide, a nurse discovered dead on a bench after apparently having poisoned herself. She is, however, not the focus of the story and all too quickly forgotten in favour of the return of Keiko (Hitomi Nozoe), the daughter of the hospital’s director who has until recently been studying abroad. She’s come to the hospital because she has a piece of a sewing needle somehow embedded in her finger which needs rather more treatment than one might expect. Anyway, while there she attracts the attentions of handsome doctor Sasajima (Ryuji Shinagawa) and meets up with old schoolfriend Gin (Sachiko Hidari) who has since become a nurse. The problem is that the hospital is in big financial trouble and Keiko’s father Shima (Toranosuke Ogawa) is secretly terminally ill with cancer. He brings in Hibiki (Jun Negami), a pharmaceuticals executive he’s been supporting as a favour to his late father, as a consultant to streamline the business, while sidelining his rather feckless son Yasuhiko (Eiji Funakoshi), an orthopaedics doctor who might be assumed to take over were he not so entirely useless. 

Introduced rather late, Hibiki is positioned almost as a villain, a destabilising force within this very bourgeois world of the hospital determined to strip it of the corrupt entitlement of the surgical class. To that extent, he comes in like a new broom to apply modern business thinking to the ancient art of medicine but does so with rather old-fashioned ideas of gratitude and loyalty to Shima, always acting in the best interests of the family while positioning himself as a servant retainer. This the minor conflict that defines his complicated relationship with the equally confused Keiko who too has returned from abroad with taste for Western individualism but is uncertain how to live her life as a woman in still conservative Japan. All her friends ask her about blue-eyed boyfriends, and though it seems that she is immediately smitten with Hibiki she quite rudely dismisses him for his slightly condescending manner later remarking that she was turned off by a sense of his overconfidence. 

Keiko tells her father she’s no plans to marry and has come back to Japan intending to continue her studies. For his part, Shima is all for a woman working but not as he puts it if it causes her to become a “brainy spinster”. Eventually courted by Sasajima she finds herself torn, even as he tells her that, unexpectedly, he has no issue with her desire to work or study were she to become his wife, uncertain in her attraction to Hibiki while drawn back towards conservatism in knowing that her father favours marriage and that Sasajima is her class-appropriate match. Despite his own attraction to her, Hibiki says nothing even on hearing of her engagement precisely because of this increasingly outdated sense of social inferiority. Meanwhile, he remains seemingly oblivious to the fact that Gin, who like him is a war orphan, has fallen in love with him which is why she continues to help him as a “spy” within the hospital. 

In response to her war trauma, Gin has developed the habit of laughing loudly, an especially unusual trait in a generally reserved culture, and often remarks on her own “stupidity”, the childlike excitability which so clearly positions her as a mirror to the elegant Keiko. Yet the push and pull between the two women has little rancour in it, save that Gin is already aware that Sasajima was responsible for the suicide of the nurse on the rooftop but has chosen not to say anything hoping they’ll marry and Hibiki will be hers. As Keiko later discovers, Sasajima is fairly brazen in his “modernity”, having lived with an aspiring model who declines to marry him because it would adversely affect her career but has no problem with him marrying someone else confident that their physical relationship will continue. Sasajima turns up while Keiko is visiting her, but calmly sits down on the bed and explains that he essentially plans to have two wives, the model for the bedroom and Keiko to be his companion of the mind. He brands her vulgar and small-minded in her conservatism when she proves unconvinced, laying bare an essential misogyny when he echoes that brainy women are “boring”, which is why he “needs” the model to satisfy himself sexually. Nevertheless, Keiko is not that kind of “modern” and in any case not so in love with Sasajima nor deluded enough to think she needs him to agree to his arrangement. 

Gin meanwhile echoes something of the model’s passive resignation when she too declares that she doesn’t care if Keiko marries Hibiki because she’s certain he’s supposed to be with her in the end because they are “alike”. There is no class conflict between them, and as they are both war orphans they share a sense of displacement in the post-war society. Unlike Keiko Gin is open in her feelings, declaring her love for Hibiki even chasing after him at the station and calling out across the ticket barriers that she’ll wait forever even if she only becomes his mistress. Earlier on, Keiko had been reading a foreign romance about a woman courted by two men she was unable to choose between only making up her mind when one of the men’s accent slipped, but in essence it’s Hibiki who finds himself torn if earnestly, thinking himself in love with Keiko but prevented from pursuing her because of his class anxiety rather than attracted to her precisely because of her class standing and everything it represents which is in a sense the target of his “revolutionary” reforms at the hospital. Tempted, he is eventually pulled back towards the side of “passion”, won over by Gin’s slightly scary if unwavering love for him. 

Yet this is no grand weepy, just the romantic confusion of three young(ish) friends who eventually find direction in their lives as mediated through “love”. Keiko reassumes her stance as a thoroughly modern woman, explaining to her rather naive mother that Yasuhiko, who has wrested control of the estate away from Hibiki, is not capable of looking after them even if he had the desire and so she intends to work, apologising to her father for her intention to become a “brainy spinster” after all. Hibiki loses out in the hospital too which is quickly retaken by the same corrupt forces Shima brought him in to combat. “I understand a woman’s feelings” Hibiki somewhat patronisingly claims as a result of his experiences, immediately proving that he doesn’t in misreading Keiko’s intentions while she, ironically, claims that she is no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by male authority. Unable to change their respective futures, the only option that remains is to abandon them for new ones of their own making but this is far from a tragedy, merely the ironic fate of the post-war generation remaking itself in real time, letting the door close behind them as they walk away from the irredeemably corrupt. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.