Hiroshi Shimizu’s ‘30s films, made against the backdrop of the increasingly censorious militarist regime, had an ambivalent attitude to Japan’s wider foreign policy, its economic impact, and prospects for the future. His final silent film, A Hero of Tokyo (東京の英雄, Tokyo no Eiyu), the title of which is perhaps either deceptive or mildly ironic, is among the bleakest of Shimizu’s depictions of a changing society he perhaps saw as increasingly corrupted by greed and inhumanity. A hahamono of sorts, Hero is not as crushing as Forget Love For Now, but ends on a note of frustrated ambiguity in which wrongdoing has been exposed and justice served but at a terrible cost, leaving the institution of the family itself and therefore the entire social order lying in pieces and broken beyond repair.
The film begins among Shimizu’s familiar milieu of small boys as they watch the trains that will eventually bring their fathers home to them coming and going. Some of the boys stay to play but eventually only one is left behind – Kanichi (Tomio Aoki), whose widowed father constantly works late and leaves him alone in the care of their maid. Kanichi’s father, Nemoto (Yukichi Iwata), is engaged in a local mining concern and, berated by the maid who reminds him that his son is often lonely, decides to marry again to bring order to his house. After placing an ad which states he is a widowed CEO with a good salary, Nemoto marries Haruko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) – a widow with two children of her own, Hideo (Jun Yokoyama) and Kayoko (Mitsuko Ichimura). A short time later it is discovered that Nemoto’s business is a scam and he flees town leaving his family to face the music alone. Haruko, committed to raising all three children equally, must now find a way to support herself but as a woman with young children and few qualifications there are few jobs available to her. Soon she falls into bar work which may not be “respectable” but allows her to support her family.
10 years later, Haruko owns a fine suburban house and the children appear to be leading a fine middle-class life. Trouble begins when Kayoko (Michiko Kuwano) marries a nice middle-class young man only to be “sent back” soon after the wedding when his family find out about Haruko’s “shameful” past. Though Haruko had told the children that she worked “in a club where executives come to relax” when they were small, Kayoko is shocked and appalled to discover her mother is tainted with the stigma of the sex trade and even more so when her mother’s past threatens to destroy her future. Haruko begs her not to tell her brothers, but Hideo (Koji Mitsui) finds out from his girlfriend, who also dumps him on hearing the rumours, and goes off the rails. Only Kanichi (Mitsugu Fujii), the step-son, stands by the mother he regards as the “best in Japan”, feeling both profound gratitude and sorrowful empathy for the sacrifice she has made on his behalf.
At heart a hahamono, A Hero of Tokyo fits neatly into Shimizu’s career long interest in female oppression in casting Haruko’s trials as entirely caused by being badly let down by a patriarchal society. Having lost one husband and being betrayed by the second, Haruko is forced to stand alone in a society which refuses to forgive her for it. As a “married” woman, she can gain no “honest” work and the necessity to care for her children means that she cannot take a role in service which in effect means dedicating oneself to a family which is not one’s own. She lacks qualifications or connections and has no family to support her and so she is forced into the only remaining line of work available to women in her situation. Haruko makes a great success of herself and becomes an upright businesswoman running her own establishment even if she cannot be exactly proud of the achievement which does (to her own shame and regret) rely on the degradation of other women just like her, though she tries to do the best for them that she can.
Yet her children, as all ungrateful children of a hahamono, are unable to forgive her for the transgressions she was forced to make entirely for their benefit. Having cast their mother as a saint of elegance and decorum, they cannot accept this new information which renders her a mere woman at the mercy of a cruel society. Kayoko, having run away from home, ironically finds herself in the same, or perhaps a worse, position, becoming a streetwalker – by her own admission “famous” and an accidental subject for one of Kanichi’s episodes of investigative reporting as a rookie newspaper man. Meanwhile Hideo has crossed to the other side and joined the ranks of exploiters of women in joining a gang only to get himself into trouble for trying to leave it when he realises he has become a hired goon for one of Nemoto’s stooge companies. The children are “ruined” not by their mother’s “sin” but by the conservative society that forced her into it and by the paternal failures of Nemoto whose abandonment reduced them to dire desperation.
It is, in this sense, Haruko rather than Kanichi who is the “hero” of the title – valiantly battling against the prejudices and cruelties of the city whilst retaining her innate sense of honour decency and steadfastly shielding her children from suffering. Her attempt to protect them perhaps backfires, leaving them without the necessary perspective and humanitarian spirit to feel empathy for others rather than succumbing to the judgemental attitudes of the age. Thus both of the biological children are condemned to suffer in the very way Haruko suffered to prevent and then find themselves too ashamed to return to her. Only Kanichi who had already suffered in his childhood loneliness, in his shame for the transgression of his father, and his position as a step-son doubting his place in a family which was not his by blood, is able to accept and sympathise with his mother’s suffering and experiences only guilt and gratitude that she had chosen to sacrifice herself for his greater happiness.
Yet Kanichi’s role as the good son is also tainted by his filial opposition to his father as it necessarily conflicts with his desire for social justice as a crusading reporter. Kanichi’s desire to expose corruption is ultimately for the common good – to save innocent people being deceived by his father’s dishonourable scheming, but it’s also an act of revenge aimed squarely at a symbol of broken patriarchal responsibilities. In the various names Shimizu attaches to Nemoto’s sham businesses, he aligns him with the expansionist Japanese state which was currently attempting a similarly dishonourable attempt to sell the economic gains of its imperialist project built on the back of international exploitation and dishonesty. It is not just a father who has failed his family, but “the” father which is failing its people in leading them down a dark and disturbing alleyway in which honour and morality no longer have any currency.
Kanichi too profits from his father’s crime – his first bonus is a direct result of the exposé of his father’s company and so he also becomes part of a system of corruption. His actions, however, are not entirely accepted by Haruko who is ashamed and troubled by Kanichi’s crime against filial piety and therefore by his betrayal of the social codes which define his society. Kanichi has picked a side, but in doing so he has also damned himself and emerges not victorious but compromised. Despite the “happy” ending, in which justice has been done and the emotional bonds of the true family restored, the concluding scenes remain ominous as the newspaper boy delivers the sorry news all over town and ruptures the tranquil middle-class peace of Haruko’s once happy suburban home.