The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Mikio Naruse, 1960)

For a small boy in post-war Japan, childhood’s summer is already over in Mikio Naruse’s at times uncharacteristically cheerful The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Aki Tachinu) . In truth, the Japanese title is the slightly more depressing “autumn has begun” echoing the dismal circumstances that the hero eventually finds himself in while working his way towards an understanding of the disappointments and loneliness of adulthood. Abandoned by his mother he remains alone, in a sense homeless, trapped between the new Japan and the old in a liminal space shrinking by the hour as the construction of modernity encroaches all around him. 

The amazement on Hideo’s (Kenzaburo Osawa) face is palpable as he exits a train station in the middle of Tokyo peering up at the high rise buildings amid busy city streets. He and his mother Shigeko (Nobuko Otowa) have travelled by train from rural Nagano following the death of his father intending to stay with his mother’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) who owns an old-fashioned grocery store in Ginza. What Shigeko has not really explained to her son is that they will not be living there together as she has taken a job as a live-in hostess at a nearby inn. 

Plunged into this unfamiliar world all alone, Hideo cannot help but feel awkward in the house of relatives he has never before met. His grown-up cousins playfully argue in front of him about having to share a room, while he makes a point of not eating too much at dinner though as Harue (Hisako Hara) jokes perhaps he doesn’t like the food seeing as his penny pinching uncle mainly feeds the family on fruit and veg from the store that’s gone past its best. Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends with the local children who mock his country bumpkin accent and use him as a scapegoat when it looks like they might get in trouble. His only companion is the precocious daughter of the owner of the inn where his mother works, Junko (Futaba Hitotsugi), who instantly takes to him and even goes so far as to beg her mother to adopt Hideo as an older brother. 

Junko is in a similarly liminal position herself as we later find out. Her mother (Murasaki Fujima) is the mistress of a wealthy businessman who only visits them every so often and appears to be well aware of the precarity of her position. Junko’s father, awkwardly inviting her out on a playdate with his other two children born to his legal wife who apparently knows everything and at least pretends to be alright with it, urges her mother to take advantage of rocketing Ginza land prices and sell the inn to buy a fancy new apartment but she is understandably wary. Running an inn is all she knows how to do and should he die or simply decide to drop her she’d be in trouble fairly quickly. Hideo’s cousins similarly nag their father to sell the shop, reminding him that with the increasing gentrification of the area there is no longer sufficient footfall to support it, and suggesting they use the money to buy larger premises in suburbia. Both Hideo and Junko are in a sense orphans of these liminal spaces, relics of a disappearing Japan soon to be eclipsed by endless office buildings symbols of the nation’s increasing economic prosperity. 

All of the sites on which the children play are earmarked for construction, Junko later explaining that the docks where they eventually head looking for the sea are built on reclaimed land big enough to build a baseball field. Like Hideo she longs for the country with clean air and unpolluted rivers though as Hideo points out it’s all the same to him, his mother isn’t in either place and so neither has any meaning for him. Her strange idea of adopting Hideo is in a way an attempt to anchor herself with family, assuring her mother that she’s old enough to understand but struggling to parse her family circumstances while deeply hurt on discovering she does have siblings after all only they don’t want to know her. She is looked down upon because of the choices her mother has made, as is Hideo especially after his mother leaves abruptly with a customer from the inn (Daisuke Kato) abandoning him with his uncle in search of romantic fulfilment which it seems she probably did not find considering a later telegram explaining she’s working as a maid at a hotel in the resort town of Atami. 

Shigeko is made out to be the villain, but she too is only chasing safety in a changing society hoping to find it in the arms of a reliable man be he a husband or not. Hideo may be an obstacle to that, but her anxiety is mostly maternal, unwilling to rely on her brother’s goodwill and knowing she will need to find a way to support her son even if she is not with him. Hideo’s cousins meanwhile are the youth of the new society. Harue has rejected the old-fashioned family grocers and now works in a department store while her former student protestor boyfriend is certain of getting a salaryman job seeing as there’s a massive labour shortage. Shotaro (Yosuke Natsuki), who is always kind to Hideo, runs around town on his scooter ferrying girls to the beach sometimes forgetting his melancholy cousin in favour of transitory pleasures. He envisages taking over the store and selling it to open up somewhere new, reassuring Hideo that there will always be a place for him there even while letting him down in the present. 

In the end, Hideo’s only friend is a beetle packaged in a box of apples from his grandma in the country which his uncle selfishly claims for the shop under the rationale that he can’t eat them all himself. A symbol of an older, rural Japan as well of the idyllic childhood for which Hideo’s longs, the beetle is as out of place in central Tokyo as he is the pair of them looking down on the sprawling city and out towards the barely visible sea from the roof of a department store which holds no sense of promise for them. Despite the bleakness of the ending, Naruse’s depiction of an ordinary childhood is deceptively cheerful perhaps implying that Hideo is merely enduring a period of adjustment only to leave him with the crushing weight of impossibility, trapped between the new society and the old with no home to go to. 


French release trailer (French subtitles only)

The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Tai Kato, 1973)

After joining the studio in the mid-1950s, Tai Kato quickly made a reputation for himself with Toei’s key brand of ninkyo eiga yakuza movies set in the chivalrous world of pre-war gangsterdom. By the early 70s, however, the genre was already played out and Kato began to work more frequently with other studios and in various genres but 1973’s The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Nihon kyoka den), produced for Toho the studio which he had first joined at the beginning of his career in 1937, takes him back to his ninkyo roots if less directly in a politicised tale revolving around the 1918 rice riots

The film opens, however, a few years earlier with the heroine, Mine (Hiroko Maki), attempting to sell children’s educational picture books aboard a train (an activity strictly prohibited). As she explains, they are in the middle of a recession and times are hard for everyone though as we discover the reason for Mine’s journey is that she is in the process of eloping with the mild-mannered Minoru (Kunio Murai), the son of a wealthy family with literary dreams, who is prevented from marrying her because of the class difference between them. The couple are doing well enough evading detection, but are caught out when accidentally implicated in the murder of a treacherous politician by left-wing agitator/noble gangster Seijiro (Tetsuya Watari) who fatefully locks eyes with Mine while trying to escape forever binding their fates together. 

Epic in length the film was originally released in two parts with an interval in-between, this first half focussing on Mine’s doomed romance which is thwarted in part by the outdated social codes of the early Taisho society and the moral cowardice of her lover who finds himself unable to resist them. The pair are thrown in prison as possible co-conspirators and beaten by the police, Mine striking up a friendship with a woman, Tsuru (Junko Toda), imprisoned for distributing pamphlets as a labour activist who later helps her to get a waitressing job and teaches her rudimentary writing while Minoru lounges around in their home sort of writing a novel. Tsuru seems to be touched by their cross-class romance, “where love is concerned to hell with social status!” she insists berating Minoru for giving in so easily when the pair are finally tracked down by his austere mother. Her socialist activism may not directly rub off on Mine but does perhaps inform her later actions after discovering the depths of Minoru’s spinelessness, rescued after a failed bid at double suicide by a truly good man, Kinzo (Meicho Soganoya), who also happens to be a traditional yakuza heading a harbour gang in Kobe. 

After becoming his wife, Mine comes to witness the persistent unfairness and exploitation all around her as mediated by the outcry surrounding the fluctuation of rice prices in the late 1910s caused by attempts at profiteering and the necessity of supplying the military forces then participating in the war in Europe. Meanwhile, would be local dictator and amoral yakuza Kishimoto (Toru Abe) is intent on squeezing the Osada gang out of the harbour further pushing up rice prices while in cahoots with corrupt local authorities. Seijiro re-enters her life when dispatched to assassinate Kinzo on the orders of Kishimoto but stabbing him as carefully as possible to make sure he doesn’t die, thereafter switching sides to fight for the rights of the poor who he warns face even greater oppression should a man like Kishimoto be allowed to dominate the harbour. 

With Kinzo out of action, Mine assumes her natural destiny as a local leader doing her best to stand up to Kishimoto and the corrupt authorities but still faces difficulty getting her voice heard without a man standing next to her. On taking Kinzo’s place at a meeting of local bosses, she is dismissed as “just a woman” before a sympathetic naval officer decides to hand her a lucrative job shifting rice intended for sailors overseas because of her knowledge of current affairs undercutting Kishimoto’s attempts to game the system. It’s the trust the navy have in her that later saves her again when she is arrested and brutally tortured by corrupt policemen working with Kishimoto intent on tracking down Seijiro for the murder on the train all those years previously. Mine’s rise is also in a sense Seijiro’s redemption as he atones for the attack on Kinzo, rejects his association with Kishimoto to re-embrace his socialist beliefs, and fulfils the romantic destiny sparked when their eyes met on the train. 

Drawing a direct line between burgeoning militarism and gangsterdom along with the amoral exploitations of an increasingly capitalist society, Kato makes his intentions clear by dropping a ninkyo eiga hero into a world of infinite corruptions in which he eventually becomes a defender of the poor. Kato’s striking composition and use of colour along with expressionistic imagery lend the air of legend implied by the title as Mine fights her way through the oppressions of her era as a figurehead for justice in an increasingly unjust society.


Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Five Men in a Circus (サーカス五人組, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

“Life is a journey” according to the melancholy heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Five Men in a Circus (サーカス五人組, Circus Goningumi), one of the director’s early anti-comedies in which a collection of itinerant performers find not so much hope for the future as accommodation with despair. Though the Japan of 1935 was not perhaps as straitened as the nation was to become, an all pervasive sense of hopelessness traps these travelling players in perpetual motion, burdened by the unattainability of their dreams as they find themselves continually moving forward while standing still. 

The five men of the title are an itinerant jinta brass band, though to tell the truth not a very good one. They were supposed to be on their way to play at a primary school sports day, only when they get there they’re told the event has been postponed to the following spring. After having wasted the afternoon killing time playing on the monkey bars and children’s slide, they decide to give a little concert anyway, not that anyone’s listening and there’s no real chance of getting paid. It’s in the next town, however, that they make a series of serendipitous meetings connected with a travelling circus which is currently undergoing a crisis as the entire male company has gone on strike against the boss’ tyrannical management style in a subversive dig at rising authoritarianism. 

All things considered, the circus seems to be doing pretty well for itself. It has a sizeable company with several accomplished performers and appears to be drawing good audiences. The boss (Sadao Maruyama) dresses in fancy outfits and there doesn’t seem to be much anxiety over hunger or any sign of the usual worries with which films about itinerant performers are usually concerned, all of which is in direct contrast to the jinta guys whose ragged appearance and habit of pinching yukata from the various inns on their route make plain their relative poverty. “None of us do jinta because we like it” the oldest of the players Seiroku (Ko Mihashi) points out, a woman behind in the bar him echoing that no one becomes a hostess because they like it either. None of these men had a burning desire to be in a band, they simply ended up there and now they can’t get out. Young orphan Kokichi (Heihachiro Okawa), however, dreams of going to Tokyo to study the violin carrying around a record of Western classical music to refresh his soul while worrying that his jinta life is corrupting him.  

Kokichi’s earnestness finds a fan and a mirror in Chiyoko (Masako Tsutsumi), the older daughter of the circus master who claims that she has long since given up hope of a better life even as she continues to dream her small dream of living in an ordinary house with a man she loves. Trapped by filial duty to her cruel father, Chiyoko actively encourages the escape of her younger sister Sumiko (Ryuko Umezono) who is in love with the ringmaster Kunio (Koji Kaga) though their father won’t let them marry. Kunio is also the instigator of the strike which is currently engulfing the circus, placing a strain on Sumiko’s conflicted loyalties as she struggles with her desire to leave the intinerant life behind. 

After the band is taken on as ringers to replace the striking musicians they also find themselves required to perform on stage, with varying degrees of success. Kokichi pleads to be given a chance to perform with a violin, even foregoing his pay as he’s warned the target audience is unlikely to find much to entertain them in a violin recital. His inexpert playing is roundly rejected by the baying mob who quickly begin throwing their rubbish at him until he’s forced to leave the stage in a moment of pure and crushing tragedy. Chiyoko tries to comfort him that she at least enjoyed the performance, but her words fail to cheer him more than superficially. He knows he’ll never go to Tokyo, or be anything more than a jinta player with only false hope to sustain him in the same way that Seiroku realises he’ll never never make peace with his past when he’s slyly conned by a 10-year-old girl he half suspected was the baby he abandoned out of economic desperation following the death of his wife. 

Yet it is in a sense romance that eventually eventually brokers resolution in the eventual implosion of Sumiko’s conflicted desires which cause her to “fall” from the trapeze, a moment of crisis daringly filmed through the use of double exposure superimposing Sumiko’s face over her POV of the men fighting in the ring. This narrowly averted tragedy apparently awakens something in her father who, she tells Kunio, only became cruel when their mother left, forcing him to relent and agree to be nicer to his employees while approving his daughter’s marriage. Yet romance cannot solve everything, and the only other romantic resolution we discover is in the roguish Torakichi (Hiroshi Uruki) who relents and accepts a woman he callously seduced and abandoned but who followed him because of the strength of a woman’s “passion”. Though we can see a connection has arisen between Chiyoko and Kokichi, it is not one which can be fulfilled, fate is pulling them in different directions. Forever a jinta player, he is pulled on to the next gig, the camera pulling back tragically from the bereaved Chiyoko, rooted to the spot as she watches her last hope walk away from her. “Life is a journey” she offers as a note of grim resignation, while knowing she’s going nowhere at all.


The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹, Yasujiro Ozu, 1950)

Though they may eventually turn melancholy, the films of Yasujiro Ozu are often cheerful affairs in which kindhearted people bear life’s troubles with stoic dignity. There are few villains, only those trying to live even while living is hard. The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹, Munekata Shimai) adapted from a story by Jiro Osaragi and produced for Shintoho rather than home studio Shochiku, however, strikes a much less happy tone, ambivalently condemning its heroine to unhappiness through her own adherence to the codes it otherwise insists are noble. 

The two titular sisters, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Mariko (Hideko Takamine), live in Tokyo where Setsuko runs a small bar which supports the family while her moody husband Mimura (So Yamamura) has long been out of work. Their father, Mr. Munekata (Chishu Ryu), has returned to Kyoto where, a doctor informs Setsuko in the opening scenes, he is suffering from terminal cancer but surprisingly healthy all things considered. Like his oldest daughter, Kyoto suits Mr. Munekata because as he puts it it is full of the beauty of old Japan, though Mariko has soon had enough of temples and palaces and longs to return to the modernity of the contemporary capital. Whilst in the city, however, they run into an old friend from Manchuria, Hiroshi (Ken Uehara), with whom Mariko soon realises her sister had been in love but he left for France before they could declare their feelings while she was already engaged to her present husband. 

Mariko, a youthful woman dressing exclusively in modern Western fashions, is quite taken with the idea of her sister’s failed romance and determines to get the pair back together. She has only resentment for her moody brother-in-law and has long been aware that Setsuko’s marriage is a failure. Within her seeming modernity, Mariko is surprisingly conservative when it comes to traditional gender roles, resenting Mimura for failing to provide for the family as a man is expected to do. Overcome with despair, he spends his days in a drunken stupor playing with stray cats rather than seriously looking for a job, defined by wounded male pride in his obvious discomfort with the fact that his wife is supporting him through the business that she operates herself. Mariko tells him to man up, tired of the way he leaves each of the women anxious in their own home, but Setsuko, more conservative still, reminds her younger sister that marriage isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and that sometimes all you can do endure. 

Mariko regards her sister’s way of thinking as “old-fashioned”, while Setsuko disapproves of her vacuous “modernity” which she sees as little more than social brainwashing that leads her to blindly follow only what is “fashionable” without thinking for herself. Mr. Munekata had said those who refused to see the beauty in old things were simply “ignorant”, but when asked to arbitrate between the sisters adopts a more equivocal position. You are you and your sister is your sister, he insists, you have your own ways of thinking and neither of you is wrong, you have simply to choose the path which suits you best. He does however caution against Mariko’s “fashionable” mindset, reminding her that it isn’t good to be mindlessly swayed by the prevailing trends, what’s important is to think deeply and value your own life. Those who only do what’s fashionable are boring, he tells her.

Later Mariko describes “modernity” as “not growing old despite the years” perhaps to counter Setsuko’s earlier dismissal that new things never become old because they don’t last. In any case, she is still in many ways a child with an underdeveloped appreciation for complex emotions which might explain why she suddenly proposes to Hiroshi herself as if she means to marry him on her sister’s behalf. She also unfairly takes against a wily widow, apparently a “friend” of Hiroshi’s from Paris who may or may not be in love with him but has obviously not replaced Setsuko in his heart. Setsuko however is conflicted, accepting financial help from Hiroshi to keep the bar open but resentful of her husband’s suggestion there is anything improper between them. She is an “old-fashioned” woman after all. Like What Did the Lady Forget?, Munekata Sisters also posits domestic violence as a reset button on a marriage as Mimura angrily slaps his wife across the face several times, but thankfully here it signals the death knell rather than rebirth of their relationship. Mimura has reasserted his manhood, but it has only shown him just how desperate and empty he has become. His wife no longer has respect for him, let alone love. 

Yet Mimura continues to control her feelings, implying that the failure of the relationship is her fault alone because she never loved him. He has slowly destroyed himself out of resentment and romantic disappointment. It seems that, though he was too cowardly to confess his feelings, Hiroshi has never forgotten his love for Setsuko and the possibility remains that she may be able to claim a happier future through abandoning her “traditional” way of thinking (“fashionable” in its own way), separating from her husband to marry for love. But in the end her code will not allow it. Guilt casts a shadow over her heart, leaving her feeling that she is no longer allowed happiness and must sacrifice her true desires to atone for the failure of her marriage. A glimmer of hope remains in Hiroshi’s determination to wait, trapping himself within the repression of patriarchal social codes, but in the end even Mariko is forced to recognise her sister’s nobility as she too tours the beauty of old Japan without complaint in new contemplation of its ambivalent charms.


Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

Closely associated with the family drama, Yasujiro Ozu is perhaps the most socially conservative of golden age directors. Unlike Naruse or Mizoguchi, he cheerfully reinforces patriarchal social norms and foregrounds the paternal experience while upholding the primacy of the traditional family in a rapidly modernising society. In his later career he’d come to sympathise more strongly with the young, but 1957’s Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Tokyo Boshoku), perhaps his bleakest take on familial failure, is essentially a treatise on the legacy of corrupted motherhood and rebuke to growing post-war freedom in which a young woman is made to feel that her future is impossible because of maternal betrayal while her sister is forced back into an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband in order to avoid the same fate befalling her own daughter. 

Unlike most Ozu families, the Sugiyamas do not seem to be particularly happy in each other’s company, living in superficial politeness rather than true intimacy. This may partly be because the sisters had a brother who passed away young in a mountain climbing accident, but it also seems that Mr. Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu), though kind and polite, is a typically authoritarian, distant father. Oldest daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) has returned home declaring herself unable to go on living with her professor husband Numata (Kinzo Shin) who, she says, has become increasingly erratic, taking out his petty professional disappointment on their small daughter Michiko whom he seems to resent. Younger sister Akiko (Ineko Arima) meanwhile is sullen and introverted. Unmarried, she lives at home and is studying to become a stenographer. 

As we later discover, the girls’ mother Kikuko (Isuzu Yamada) left the family during the war after falling in love with the junior officer Mr. Sugiyama enlisted to look in on the family while he was away in Seoul. Akiko was only three when their mother left and barely remembers her. Takako attributes her wayward behaviour to “loneliness”, that she has been forever corrupted through never knowing a mother’s love. Mr. Sugiyama admits he tried his best, but both agree that children need two parents and no matter how much he wants to a father cannot make up a mother’s share. 

This atmosphere of alienation is perhaps why Akiko feels as if she has no one to turn to in her own moment of maternal crisis. She has become pregnant by her college student boyfriend who has been avoiding her and even has the audacity to ask if the baby’s his when Akiko finally manages to pin him down. Trying to borrow money for an abortion, Akiko visits her aunt who declines to give it to her without knowing why, eventually turning to a family friend who apparently provides no questions asked. The woman at the clinic assumes she is a bar girl, as does a policeman who eventually “arrests” her for loitering in a sleazy cafe where her boyfriend has obviously stood her up which is quite openly being used as a place for men to pick up call girls. All of this contributes to Akiko’s increasing sense of shame and worthlessness. She sees herself as a fallen woman, convinced that she is all her mother’s child contaminated by her “bad blood” which makes a conventionally successful life as an ordinary wife and mother an impossibility. 

Akiko’s aunt wants to set her up with arranged marriage matches, but Akiko declares she has no intention of marrying or having children. Without knowing anything of Akiko’s circumstances, Takako assumes this is because of her obviously unhappy marriage, trying to convince her sister that there are plenty of happy couples she is merely unlucky. Mr. Sugiyama attempts to talk to his son-in-law but finds him strange and indifferent, offering treatises on familial love while implying that he has little of it. He regrets pressuring Takako to marry him when he knew that she preferred someone else while Takako is once again haunted by the spectre of corrupted maternity in her mother’s decision to leave the family for emotional fulfilment and is fearful of making the same mistake creating another troubled daughter just like Akiko in denying her a father’s love (which seems a moot point given that Numata does not care for the child). 

Neither woman is able to escape paying for their mother’s transgression. Akiko is punished firstly for embracing her sexuality and secondly for the rejection of motherhood in choosing to have an abortion. Alone and humiliated by her unreliable boyfriend, she is denied the opportunity to start over, while Takako meditates on female failure and believes that her only option is to live in misery with a cruel and narcissistic husband because that is the “proper” thing to do and the only way to bring her daughter up “right”. The absent mother, meanwhile, is denied reconciliation and left only with the painful separation from her daughter who finally rejects her in order to reclaim the image of the good wife and mother by returning to her unhappy home. Bleak as it is, all of this is presented as a kind of happy ending in that it restores the idea of the traditional family, increasingly threatened by post-war modernity, to its original primacy. We leave with Mr. Sugiyama rehiring his maid and heading cheerfully back to the male world of work, making the fresh start that his daughters have been so cruelly denied.  


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Stakeout (張込み, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)

Most closely associated with the crime genre, Yoshitaro Nomura was, like his frequent source of inspiration Seicho Matsumoto, also an insightful chronicler of the lives of ordinary people in the complicated post-war society. Stakeout (張込み, Harikomi), once again inspired by a Matsumoto short story, is on the surface a police procedural but underneath it’s not so much about the fugitive criminal as a policeman on the run, vacillating in his choice of bride, torn between the woman he loves who is afraid to marry him because her family is poor, and the pressure to accept an arranged marriage with the perfectly nice daughter of a local bathhouse. The stakeout becomes, in his eyes, a kind of illustrated parable, going against the socially conventional grain to convince him that making the “sensible” choice may only lead to long years of regret, misery, and loneliness. 

The film opens, as so many of Nomura’s films do, with a journey as two dogged Tokyo cops board a long distance train from Yokohoma travelling all the way down to provincial Kyushu which might as well be a world away from the bustling metropolis. Posing as motor salesmen, they take a room at a local inn overlooking the home of a melancholy housewife, Sadako (Hideko Takamine), the former girlfriend of a man on the run, Ishii (Takahiro Tamura), suspected of being in possession of a gun used to kill the owner of a pawn shop during a robbery. The younger of the policemen, Yuki (Minoru Oki), declares himself faintly disappointed with Sadako, complaining that she looks older than her years and is in fact quite boring, “the epitome of ordinary”. 

His older colleague, Shimooka (Seiji Miyaguchi), reminds him that most people are boring and ordinary, but as he watches her Yuki comes to feel a kind of sympathy for Sadako, seeing her less as a suspect than a fellow human being. Later we hear from Sadako that her marriage has left her feeling tired every day, aimless, and with nothing to live for, that her decision to marry was like a kind of suicide. “A married woman is miserable” Yuki laments on observing Sadako’s life as she earnestly tries to do her best as a model housewife, married to a miserly middle-aged banker who padlocks the rice, berates her for not starting the bath fire earlier to save on coal, and gives only 100 yen daily in housekeeping money while she cares for his three children from a previous marriage. Trying to coax him back towards the proper path, Shimooka admits that marriage is no picnic, but many are willing to endure hardship at the side of the right man. 

The “right man” gets Yuki thinking. Sadako has obviously not ended up with the right man which is why he sees no sign of life in her as if she simply sleepwalks through her existence. He is obviously keen that he wouldn’t want to make another woman feel like that, or perhaps that he would not like to be left feeling as she does at the side of the wrong woman. We discover that his dilemma is particularly acute because he finds himself at a crossroads dithering between two women, faced with a similar choice to the one he increasingly realises Sadako regrets. Shimooka’s wife is acting as a go-between, pressuring him to agree to an arranged marriage with a very nice girl whose family own the local bathhouse. She makes it clear that she’s not trying to force him into a marriage he doesn’t want, but would like an answer even if the answer is no so they can all move forward, but for some reason he hasn’t turned it down. Yuki is in love with Yumiko (Hizuru Takachiho), but Yumiko has turned him down once before because her family is desperately poor, so much so that they’re about to be evicted and all six of them will have to move into a tiny one room flat. She feels embarrassed to explain to her prospective husband that she will need to continue working after they marry but send almost all of her money to her parents rather than committing to their new family. 

Meditating on his romantic dilemma, Yuki begins to sympathise even more with Sadako, resenting their fugitive for having placed her in such a difficult position and repeatedly cautioning the other officers to make sure that the press don’t get hold of Sadako’s name and potentially mess up her comfortable middle class life with scandal when she is entirely blameless. The fugitive, Ishii, is not a bad man but a sorry and desperate one. He went to Tokyo to find work, but became one of many young men lost in the complicated post-war economy, shuffling from one poorly paid casual job to another. Now suffering with what seems to be incurable tuberculosis, he finds himself dreaming of his first love, the gentle tones of famous folksong Furusato wafting over the pair as they lament lost love at a picturesque hot springs while Yuki continues to spy on them from behind a nearby tree. 

They both bitterly regret their youthful decision to part, she not to go and he not to stay. The failure to fight for love is what has brought them here, to lives of desperate and incurable misery filled only with regret and lonliness. Sadako views her present life as a kind of punishment, finally resolving to leave her husband and runaway with Ishii who has told her that he plans to go to Okinawa to drive bulldozers for the next three years, though we can perhaps guess he has a different destination in mind. “That’s the way the world is, things don’t go the way you want” Ishii laments, but the truth is choices have already been made and your course is as set as a railway track. Sadako plots escape, but all Yuki can do is send her back to her husband with sympathy and train fare, leaving us worried that perhaps she won’t go back after all. Buying tickets for his own return journey, Yuki pauses to send a telegram. He’s made his choice. It’s not the same as Sadako’s, a lesson has been learnt. He goes back to Tokyo with marriage on his mind, but does so with lightness in his step in walking away from the socially rigid past towards a freer future, staking all on love as an anchor in an increasingly confusing world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Travelling Actors (旅役者, Mikio Naruse, 1940)

“You can’t have a horse without the ass” admits a travelling actor, inwardly preparing to meet his obsolescence. Anything’s an art if you care to practice it, but there is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. A masterclass in tragicomedy, Naruse’s 1940 character study Travelling Actors (旅役者, Tabi Yakusha) finds two ends of a pantomime horse about to be torn apart when their act is unwittingly destroyed by a resentful punter whose drunken attempt to escape his sense of humiliation in being tricked by unscrupulous promoters leaves their horse without a head. 

Hyoroku (Kamatari Fujiwara) prides himself on being the “Danjuro of pantomime horses”, performing with the younger Senpei (Kan Yanagiya) who looks up to him as if he really were a great master of the arts. The guys are part of a group of travelling players touring rural Japan performing traditional skits for an audience starved of entertainment. The troupe is not, however, above exploitative business practices, proudly advertising the appearance of “Kikugoro” but neglecting to mention that it’s not the famous one, just another guy with the same name. Meanwhile, someone has to foot the bill for “producing” the show wherever the actors land, leading the exploitative producers to convince a local barber (Ko Mihashi) to invest, hoping to get a little free publicity because he’s known to be the town gossip and can spread the word through his shop. The plan backfires, however, when he travels to the station to see them arrive and immediately realises they are not a fancy acting company from Tokyo but a bunch of ragged bumpkins. Feeling thoroughly fed up, he demands to be allowed to perform in the show as the price of his silence before getting black out drunk and passing out backstage, crushing the papier-mâché horse’s head in his desperation to find somewhere soft to land. 

As “Kikugoro” points out, the “guy who plays the pantomime horse is really picky” so they know they’re in for some trouble as soon as he finds out what’s happened to his head. In fact, Hyoroku was just in the middle of some remodelling, trying to make the head look even more realistic to improve his art. While the barber is destroying his life’s work, Hyoroku and Senpei are drinking with a pair of geishas who are pretending to be interested in Hyoroku’s mini lecture about his process in which he tells them all about how he’s really captured the true essence of the horse through patiently honing his craft all these long years. 

There might be something in that, that Hyoroku is a workhorse of the theatre now more beast than man. Just occasionally, his horsey mannerisms come out in his offstage life, scratching the floor with his feet or pacing the room like a penned in pony. Though there are other sides of him which are painfully human. He makes a point of belittling Senpei in front of the geishas, insulting his art to assert his place as the teacher, always keen to keep his pupil in his place. But as Senpei points out, you can’t have a horse without the ass, and his “art” is no less important than Hyoroku’s. Continuing to take himself way too seriously, Hyoroku refuses to perform with the broken head, flatly objecting to the suggestion of substituting one from the fox costumes because he can’t get into character when his head’s in the wrong place. 

Faced with the prospect of cancelling the show, the producers come up with a radical idea – hiring a real horse. In a still more ironic touch, they even sell this horse who is making his stage debut as a star in his own right, only realising the dangers of their situation when it urinates right in the middle of the act. Weirdly, that only makes the horse a hit and convinces the troupe they’re on to a winner, which is bad news for the boys because who wants to see two guys in an ugly costume when they could be gazing at the real thing. The days of the pantomime horse are ending, but where does that leave a “great master” like Hyoroku who has spent his life becoming more horsey than a horse? Kicked out of the inn and forced to sleep backstage as non-performers, the guys eventually suffer the indignity of being offered jobs as stable boys, mere servants to the star who has replaced them. 

In an unguarded moment, Hyoroku and Senpei reflect on where they are as a young man in a soldier’s uniform leads a patient horse off to war. “That could be us” they sigh, though it’s not clear if they mean the man or the horse, before going back to horsing around eating shaved ice and flirting with the store owner. “I’m just the horse’s ass”, Senpei laments, secretly hoping to become a “real” actor at last, only for Hyoroku to uncharacteristically start encouraging him before dragging him off on another crazy adventure. Putting the fox’s head on to make a point, Hyoroku disappears into the role, chasing his rival right out of town, dragging his back legs behind him as he goes. 


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.


Hideko, the Bus Conductor (秀子の車掌さん, Mikio Naruse, 1941)

vlcsnap-2019-12-28-21h47m57s539It’s true enough that we might not have enough extant material from the pre-war and wartime eras to be as selective as some might accuse of us of being on realising that the directors we tend to remember are the ones we see as resisting. Though there were a fair few who managed simply to steer clear of the prevailing ideology, most skirted their way around the demands of the censors board by embracing the kinds of themes they could would work with. In Hideko, the Bus Conductor (秀子の車掌さん, Hideko no Shasho-san) Naruse pushes in a slightly different direction, retreating almost entirely from the troubles of the contemporary era into an idyllic vision of pastoral Japan.

Echoing Mr. Thank You, he opens with a POV shot of bus travelling a rural road accompanied by jaunty music. Neatly undercutting the cheerful atmosphere with ironic absurdity, we then cut to bus conductress Okoma (Hideko Takamine) announcing the next stop to an entirely empty bus. The problem is, the bus Okoma and the driver, Sonoda (Kamatari Fujiwara), operate is old, slow, and dirty. A new company, Kaihatsu, recently launched with shiny new buses that are cleaner and faster, if a little more expensive. Unsurprisingly, most people prefer to travel with Kaihatsu, meaning the only passengers waiting for Okoma’s bus are the kind that don’t have much money or are looking for different kinds of service – e.g. transporting live chickens or unusually large amounts of bags.

A radio programme recommended by her landlady gives Okoma an idea to boost business – performing as a kind of tour guide reading out interesting facts about the local area to entertain the passengers. Unfortunately, no one can quite think of any interesting facts or local landmarks in this tiny rural backwater. Nevertheless, Okoma and Sonoda are determined to give it a go, eventually obtaining permission from the decidedly laissez-faire boss who spends most of his days guzzling ramune and eating kakegori. To make sure the service is professional, they enlist the services of a local writer, Ikawa (Daijiro Natsukawa), whose notebook Okoma once returned when he left it on the bus. Weirdly, he doesn’t even want paying because he enjoys writing this kind of thing, and even coaches Okoma on how to get the cutest accent to really attract those customers with adorable local charm (even though Okoma is very proud to be thought of as nicely spoken young lady with nary an accent at all).

Of course, in true Naruse style, it’s not quite as idyllic as it seems. Most of the people we meet are poor and struggling, that’s why they’re taking this bus and not Kaihatsu’s. Even so, they’re all pleasant and polite, not even minding when Okoma asks the driver to stop by her house so she can chat with her mother, giving her a kimono she’s bought as a present (that her mum tells her off for spending her money on) and swapping her worn out cloth shoes for a classic pair of geta in which she seems to be more comfortable. At one stage, a chicken escapes from the bus and they stop to catch it, timetable be damned. Mind you, there don’t even really seem to be specific stops on this strangely occasional service. In need of passengers, Okoma and Sonoda seem content to stop and pick up random passersby who might be in search of a lift, taking them to wherever they might want to to go.

That might be one reason explaining why Okoma’s landlady is keen to warn her that she’s heard the bus company is no good, it’s just a front for some kind of unspecified shadiness. The truth, however, is more that the boss seems to be the feckless sort who enjoys being bossy but has no idea how to run a business. Distracted by Okoma’s monologue, Sonoda starts forgetting to stop and pick people up and eventually has to slam on the brakes when a child runs out into the street. While they’re checking on the kid, the bus rolls back over the verge, injuring Okoma and landing in farmland. Reassured that no-one has been “seriously” hurt (he’s not getting sued), the boss is then more worried about the insurance, seeing as it doesn’t cover him if the engine was running while they were stopped. Even though Sonoda explains that there’s no damage except maybe a scratch on the side, the boss suggests he scupper the engine and smash the windows so they can claim. They need a better bus, otherwise the company will have to close.

Earlier on, Sonoda and Okoma had joked about a popular slogan “When a country gets confused, loyal subjects appear”. Sonoda rolls his eyes a little and calls it “bombast”. They might not object to adding a bit about birds singing for the emperor’s long reign to their monologue, but it’s plain they aren’t going to go along with something they think is wrong because the boss says it’s a good idea. Sonoda is a little conflicted to begin with, talking it over with Ikawa who acts as the slightly patronising voice of city sophistication, he realises that if he follows the boss’ orders and lies he’ll not only be cheating the rest of society but himself too in doing something he knows to be immoral. Both he and Okoma vow they’ll quit rather than be forced into dishonesty, after all, says Okoma, there are plenty of other jobs (or perhaps not, in real terms, but still there is a choice). Suddenly, they feel quite cheerful, buoyed by their sense of moral righteousness.

An intervention from Ikawa saves their jobs, but this is still a Naruse film in which the world will always betray us, and so Okoma and Sonoda cheerfully continue their tour guiding business little knowing that the boss has gone bust and sold the bus. It might be going too far to say that Naruse envisages a fiery crash, a rude awakening for Okoma and Sonoda who will be left with only the cold comfort that they stood up against authoritarianism when it all goes to hell, but the subtle allegory is all but unmissable. Absurdly cheerful, and just a little bit depressing if you stop to think about it, Hideko the Bus Conductor is a charming jaunt through rural ‘40s Japan filled with salt of the earth types just trying to muddle through while the big bosses put their feet up and pop ramune marbles all day long without a care in the world.