Singing Lovebirds (鴛鴦歌合戦, Masahiro Makino, 1939)

singing lovebirds still 5With things the way they were in the Japan of 1939, you might have expected cinema to have taken a universal turn to the dark side but surprisingly enough there was still room on the silver screen for silliness as the improbable marvel of Singing Lovebirds (鴛鴦歌合戦, Oshidori Utagassen) makes plain. Legend has it that musical master of the jidaigeki Masahiro Makino threw Lovebirds together in record time in order to fill a production gap after big time star Chiezo Kataoka was struck down by appendicitis in the middle of filming On the Road with Yaji and Kita. Kataoka is also Lovebird’s nominal male star though his appearance is understandably limited (his scenes were shot later and apparently in a matter of hours) leaving veteran actor Takashi Shimura to pick up the slack as an antiques obsessed disenfranchised former samurai who finds himself at the centre of a dastardly plot orchestrated by the higher ups to solve an ongoing romantic crisis among the youngsters.

The crisis revolves around the handsome Reizo (Chiezo Kataoka) – a young ronin betrothed to a young lady from a well to do family, Fujio (Fujiko Fukamizu), whose father is keen to make the marriage official as quickly as possible. Reizo, however, has fallen for Oharu (Haruyo Ichikawa) – the daughter of ronin umbrella maker Shimura (Takashi Shimura). Meanwhile, Reizo has also become an object of affection for the daughter of a wealthy local merchant, Otomi (Tomiko Hattori), who is spoilt and entitled to the extent that Reizo’s resistance only enflames her ardour. If all that weren’t enough to be going on with, a randy local lord (Dick Mine) is also actively chasing most of the women in the area and after getting turned down by Otomi has his sights set on Oharu.

Peaceful times allow for small bursts of chaos and ongoing romantic silliness which is where we find our conflicted heroes, yet there is a persistent strain of anxiety in the precarious lives of the disenfranchised ronin who find themselves trapped in a cycle of wilful degradation which prevents them from taking on work unbefitting of a gentlemen and, consequently, permanently on the brink of starvation. Umbrella making, a frequent ronin-friendly occupation in the world of the jidaigeki, is one such way of making ends meet, but Shimura can only afford to feed his daughter barley much to her consternation. Rather than use his meagre resources for short term satisfaction he’s decided to “invest” them in various “antiques” which he believes both bolster his status and can be sold to provide a dowry for Oharu when she decides to marry.

Unfortunately, Shimura is mistaken – he’s not got as good an eye for antiques as he thought and is a well known mark for the local hawker. Everything he has is a fake and he’s wasted a small fortune on useless trinkets. Shimura’s antiques mania also leaves him open to other kinds of scams and manipulation when he gets himself into a small amount of debt to the randy lord and Fujio’s dad (Mitsuru Toyama) who have tricked him in order to try and get Oharu out of the Reizo picture and into the lord’s bedchamber. Unlike many Jidaigeki dads, however, Shimura is a nice guy and tells the higher ups where to get off because what kind of father sells his daughter for the price of a pretty tea bowl?

Shimura’s logic might not make much sense to the lords, or to many other residents of the jidiaigeki world, but is perfectly in keeping with the film’s surprisingly humanist morality in which all are made to realise that greed is bad, money is silly, and at the end of the day all that really matters is true love (even if you have to live in a hovel and survive on barley gruel for the rest of your life). Even the spoilt Otomi is finally forced to realise that you can’t force love and the best you can do is try to support other people’s happiness while you wait for yours to come along (which it is more likely to do once you start being nicer to everyone including your long suffering manservant).

Bright, cheerful, and filled with zany humour Singing Lovebirds is a refreshingly warmhearted piece of eminently hummable escapist fluff providing a much needed distraction from the austere world of 1939 in which its particular brand of anti-capitalist humanism would seem to be extremely out of place. Nevertheless, the corrupt and oppressive samurai order gets a much needed comeuppance, the little guy realises he doesn’t need to play their game anymore, and a young woman realises the only person she needed to feel good enough for was herself. A happy ending for all and an umbrella wielding dance routine to boot – who could ask for anything more?


Brief clip (extremely poor quality, no subtitles)

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (血槍富士, Tomu Uchida, 1955)

Bloody Spear Mount Fuji posterThere was a reason that the occupation authorities were suspicious of period films, but the jidaigeki of the post-war years are not generally interested in nationalistic pride so much as in interrogating the myths of the samurai legacy in order to pick apart the compromises of the modern era and the follies of the immediate past. Tomu Uchida had been among the most prominent directors of pre-war cinema but left to join the Manchurian Film Cooperative in 1942, remaining in China until 1953. Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (血槍富士, Chiyari Fuji) was his “comeback” film, brought into existence through the good offices of fellow directors Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Daisuke Ito who had been the pioneer of samurai movies in the silent era. Like the later films of Masaki Kobayashi, Uchida takes aim at the hypocritical falsehoods of the samurai order and at a series of still prevalent social codes which oblige one human to oppress another in order to avoid acknowledging the fact that one is oneself oppressed.

Ironically enough we begin on the road to Edo as a goodhearted but compromised samurai, Sawaka (Teruo Shimada), makes the journey to the capital to make his name with a precious teacup in tow. He may be a samurai, but he’s making this lengthy journey on foot and accompanied by only two retainers – veteran spearman Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka), and manservant Genta (Daisuke Kento). While on the road, the trio come across various other travellers including a shamisen player (Chizuru Kitagawa) and her daughter, a cheeky orphan who wants to be a samurai, and a melancholy father and daughter en route to visit a relative in the hope of financial assistance. There is also a notorious bandit on the loose going by the name of Rokuemon, which is one reason that the “recently wealthy” miner Tozaburo (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) is arousing suspicion with local law enforcement.

In contrast to many a jidaigeki epic, the travellers on the road to Edo are mostly good people if wise enough to be wary and on the look out for trouble. Genta and Genpachi have been given strict instructions that Sawaka is not to drink during the journey. Though he’s a nice enough soul when sober, Sawaka is a mean drunk with a tendency to start random fights and his mother doesn’t want him messing up his big chance by causing trouble on the road. This maternal solicitude can’t help but annoy Sawaka who overhears Genta complaining to a servant at the inn as he enjoys a quick glass of solo sake in the kitchen. There may be a sword on Sawaka’s belt, but he’s a middle ranker at best – something rammed home to him when the party is held up by a roadblock which turns out to be solely caused by three elite samurai having a picnic who wish to enjoy the view uninterrupted. Later he grips the handle on his sword in rage and desire to help a young woman in trouble before his hand begins to slip as he realises how little power he really has. The only thing to help her was money, and money is something Sawaka evidently does not have.

Sawaka’s “power” is entirely illusionary and dictated by the complex hierarchies of the samurai era. Breaking all the rules, he considers selling his “priceless ancestral spear” to get money to help the girl, but is told that the spear is a fake and hardly worth anything. With the help of the plucky little boy Jiro, Genpachi helps to apprehend a wanted criminal but it’s Sawaka who gets a commendation – something which causes him not a little consternation but his attempts to transfer the praise onto the rightful parties falls on deaf ears. In any case, the reward is just a piece of paper filled with more empty words and not much practical use to anyone. A fake spear begets a fake reward, he quips, becoming ever more disillusioned with the rights and responsibilities of the samurai order while somewhat romanticising the lives of the “ordinary” who might be more “free” in one sense but then Sawaka is never going to worry about being hungry or have to think about selling his daughter to avoid certain ruin even if he resents the ways in which is social class obliges him to affect coldheartedness.

Sawaka’s rejection of “samurai” values eventually leads to his downfall when an invitation to a servant to join him at his drinking table as an equal provokes outrage in a fellow nobleman who feels his own status threatened by this genial act of meaningless equality. Sawaka’s attempts to insist that he and his servant are both human beings only makes things worse and it doesn’t take long to figure out that he has picked the wrong battle if what he wanted was to strike a blow at samurai hypocrisy. Sawaka himself is no innocent in this game, terrorising a trio of peasants simply because one of them had an interesting nose and the drink was in him. Sawaka’s servant eventually pays the price for his mistake, bearing out his earlier frustrations with the chain of “shadows” that defines the samurai order and seemingly has no end.

Genpachi is the embodiment of the good retainer, but he’s also a kind and sympathetic man who takes an interest in the lonely orphan boy and, to a lesser extent, the shamisen player and her little daughter. The four of them form a kind of makeshift family, but the samurai order destroys even this small slice of happiness as the road prepares to force them apart. Having bloodied his spear but had his act of rage “approved” by the powers that be, Genpachi emerges broken and masterless, his fatherly attentions to Jiro relegated to a literal instruction not to follow in his footsteps and never to become a “spear carrier”, a mere tool at the mercy of a cruel and corrupt regime. Uchida begins in comedy complete with a whimsical contemporary score but makes clear that his ending is inevitable tragedy only made worse by the superficial rubber stamping that neatly sanctions the hero’s moment of madness as one perfectly in keeping with his moral universe.


Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is available on blu-ray from Arrow Academy with a typically expansive feature commentary by film scholar Jasper Sharp including a minor digression into the career of director Hiroshi Shimizu – another sadly neglected figure of pre-war/golden age Japanese cinema. Other on-disc extras includes a series of interviews ported over from the French release – though it is nice to have them, it’s a shame that they are presented with the hardcoded French subtitles blurred out and English ones placed over the top which is less than ideal but perhaps cannot be helped. First pressing also includes a booklet featuring a lengthy essay by James Oliver which duplicates much of the information from the commentary while also situating the film within the context of Uchida’s career and the wider post-war world, as well as a complete filmography both for Uchida’s directing and acting work compiled by Sharp.

Short clip from an unrestored version of the film (no subtitles)

Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Benten Kozo dvd coverStarting out as a child actress, Hibari Misora was one of the biggest singing and acting stars of the post-war period whose songs are often pointed to as embodiments of the era’s melancholy yet determined spirit. Though it’s her singing career which has perhaps had the most historical impact, Misora made an immense number of films most of them in ’50s and ‘60s, many typical star vehicles of the time – silly comedies and softer musicals, usually finding an opportunity or two for a song even in straight drama. Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧), released in 1960 for Toei, is very much of this mould and showcases another somewhat interesting facet of Misora’s career in her readiness to play ambiguous gender roles.

Based on the well known kabuki play, Benten Kozo, which had also been adapted two years previously in a version starring male actor Raizo Ichikawa, Sasaki’s film stars Hibari Misora in the title role – a 13 year old boy who was given up at birth to be raised in a temple which specialises in performing Noh theatre. Kikunosuke (Hibari Misora) is their star, but there’s a dark side to temple performing companies in that they’re dependent on donations and it’s accepted practice to allow wealthy patrons to do whatever they like with the talent, no matter their age or gender. Kikunosuke knows this and isn’t having any of it. Pushed into a room with a lecherous, overly made-up older woman, Kikunosuke balks at the old monk’s attempts to pimp him out and tries to leave, much to the monk’s disappointment.

Unfortunately, just as Kikunosuke is leaving, a thief arrives to steal the money meant for the monk and kills the old woman in the process. Kikunosuke kills the thief but is accused of killing the old woman too and is forced on the run. Tracking down his birth mother, Ofuji (Mitsuko Miura), Kiku thinks he’s found a home but is betrayed, at which point he adopts the name “Benten Kozo” (lit. “Benten Kid” where Benten is the name of the goddess at the temple where he was raised) and joins a gang of Robin Hood-style outlaw thieves.

Like many period films of the time, Benten Kozo revolves around exposing the corruption of the samurai order. In this case, it’s a salt scam – the samurai elders have been stockpiling salt to push the price up, endangering the lives of ordinary people for their own financial gain and thinking nothing of it. The thieves, led by later Lone Wolf and Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama, are dedicated to robbing the rich to feed the poor but they also aim to expose those in power for the reckless bullies they really are. Benten Kozo joins the “Shiranami Five Alliance” both out of self preservation and out of genuine sympathy with their cause, eventually encountering the same corrupt monk who turned a blind eye to his attempted molestation when he intervenes to save a woman forced into prostitution to pay her father’s debt whom the monk was attempting to rape.

Benten Kozo listens to the woman’s story and decides to give her his savings (which he no longer wants after being betrayed by his mother for whom he’d been saving the money) to pay off her family debt. In fact the pair met earlier when Benten Kozo was on the run and she helped him hide from the authorities. The woman, like several in the film, falls for Benten Kozo’s androgynous charms though he remains resolutely noble and indifferent. Benten Kozo would originally have been played by a male actor on the kabuki stage which did not allow female performers. The “onnagata” or actors who specialised in playing women were often effeminate younger men or boys much like Benten Kozo himself who plays these skills to the max throughout the film.

Hibari Misora, with her low, husky voice, effortlessly switches between the elegant upperclass women Benten Kozo impersonates on stage and in service of the gang’s scams, and the rough and ready dialect of a street ruffian. In a shocking display of bravado, Benten Kozo drops the top of his kimono to show his off his tattoos proving once and for all that he’s no lady but still his appeal lingers perhaps precisely because of his gender ambiguity.

Benten Kozo is not a musical but finds two occasions for Misora to sing – once as Benten Kozo takes off on the road, and the other at the end as he paddles a boat away back to his new found friends. The film ends with a giant mass brawl and also provides ample scope for Misora to escape across roof tops and fight off the unjust but it’s otherwise fairly straightforward fare and not exactly among the singer’s most memorable outings. It is however generally entertaining and interesting enough in its central theme of woman playing man playing woman to warrant attention from more than just diehard Misora fans.


Hibari Misora singing Benten Kozo in concert some years later.