A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

The term “dokufu” or “poisonous woman” dates back to the Edo era, but rose to prominence once again in the turbulent society of late Meiji in which such women became fodder for the growing penny dreadful industry. Unlike the later “bad girl” or contemporary examples of “bad women” from elsewhere, the problem with “poisonous women” is that they pollute society as a whole, corrupting those around them through their unbridled transgressions. These notions are of course as much about contemporary notions of femininity and a desire to preserve the social order at all costs as they are about conventional morality and the rule of law, but there are reasons that tales of such independent women incited such a frenzy among both men and women who found themselves floundering in a confusing and rapidly changing society.

Nobuo Nakagawa’s A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Dokufu Takahashi Oden) is inspired by the real life tale one particular “dokufu”, Oden Takahashi, who was in fact the last woman to be beheaded in Japan after being convicted of murdering her lover while suspected of poisoning her husband. Nakagawa does not particularly pay attention to the “real” details of her life but to her pulp persona, somewhat reclaiming her image as an ultra cool revenger who refused to be bound by the restrictive mores of her times or suffer at the hands of the feckless men she nevertheless falls victim to. 

When we first meet Oden (Katsuko Wakasugi), she is being pursued by a large number of policemen whom she manages to outrun, eventually tricking them and escaping by getting a lift from a passing rickshaw driver. The ride is tense, and we worry that Oden will encounter an accident that will bring her to the attention of the police, but the crisis is something quite different. In a staggering coincidence, the rickshaw driver is none other than Oden’s estranged first husband, Jinjuro (Akira Nakamura), once a samurai but now reduced to pulling a cab after ruining himself through drink and debauchery (apparently why Oden eventually left him). Though it’s not exactly a happy reunion, the pair part on good terms while he laments that their small daughter Omitsu still misses her mother, managing to extract a few notes from Oden supposedly for her upkeep.  

Oden meanwhile goes home to husband no. 2, Ryosuke (Asao Matsumoto), who is bedridden with TB and increasingly paranoid about what Oden does outside the house to keep them fed. Operating out of a remote cottage, she puts on a ridiculously elaborate Western outfit and heads to a jewellers where she pretends to look at precious stones for a ring, dropping one on the floor while the salesman’s back is turned and spiking it with the point of her parasol knowing that no-one is going to think of looking there. The assistants aren’t stupid, they know a stone is missing and Oden must have pocketed it but all they can do is search her person, calling in the local bobby, Kazuma. (Juzaburo Akechi), who thinks they may be going too far in forcing this upperclass lady to strip off to prove she’s not a thief. The owner of the store, Osawa (Tetsuro Tanba), looks on knowingly but is intrigued more than anything else, eventually content to let Oden go despite knowing she has the jewel concealed somewhere about her person. 

Disaster strikes, however, when Oden runs into Kazuma in the street and he spots her parasol sparkling. He tries to arrest her, but she pleads with him to let her change out of her extremely silly outfit first, playing the poor widow card and eventually seducing the naive policeman. What Oden didn’t quite bank on was actually falling for him for real, drawn in a sense to order and goodness, longing to be caught and restored to the rightful condition of womanliness but fearing she has lost all right to conventional happiness. 

Oden’s relationship with Kazuma is an example of the effects of her “poison” on society at large. Kazuma as we first meet him is earnest and good, a naive young rookie with a strong sense of justice who leaps to defend Oden thinking she is a maligned noble woman unfairly accused of thievery. His superior Kakunosuke (Gen Funabashi), has set him up with his innocent little sister Kozue (Minako Yamada) and it seems the pair will soon marry, but Kazuma is apparently not so much interested in sweetness as he is in Oden’s complicated darkness. He falls obsessively in love with her, perhaps partly out of a desire to save her from her criminal life by bringing her to justice, but also in attraction to all of her transgressive qualities which contradict everything he stands for. 

Nakagawa reframes Oden’s poisonousness as a consequence of her frustrated maternity and a continual failure of masculinity. After re-encountering Jinjuro, Oden finds it increasingly difficult to justify the act of abandoning her child and leaving her with a man she knew to be a violent and feckless drunk. Though Jinjuro appears to have reformed himself through the time-honoured devices of humbleness and hard work, we later find him extorting money from Oden to pay for Omitsu’s medical care only to drink it all himself. Oden tries to visit her daughter, but is after all a stranger in her life. Her attempt to reclaim her maternity, escape the trap of criminality and leave the city with her little girl is the primary motivator for all of her subsequent actions which culminate in an intense desire for revenge against Jinjuro, the architect of all her misfortune. 

All of Oden’s earlier crimes were in some way permissible, taking from those who could afford to lose and doing it with a degree of style. The botched job at the jewellers, however, sees her fall into the hands of Osawa, who turns out to be a violent and sadistic gang boss. Osawa keeps women captive in his basement and whips them for his own enjoyment, forcing Oden to become a procurer tricking vulnerable women into becoming sex slaves. Oden thinks nothing of this, smirking that there must be good money in selling women, willingly complicit in the oppression of those just like her. To free herself from Osawa, she uses Jinjuro, attempting to kill two birds with one stone and finding partial success only for the plan to fall apart when confronted by the face of order in the reappearance of a ruined Kazuma. 

Oden ends her journey in Yokohama, a bustling international port, where she’s the tattooed madame of the Osawa’s Chinese bar and a familiar face at the gaming tables. The suggestion is that this corruption is foreign in origin, Osawa’s top hat and smart suit not to mention plush Western-style bed, suggesting that his savagery is a facet of his seduction by Chinese hedonism and Western individualism. Individualism is again painted as Oden’s sin when she leaves the women locked in a jail cell to escape a fire while cradling her ill-gotten gains, only to tell Kazuma to man up and that money is what she truly loves. But Oden is also victim of her times, betrayed by a failure of masculinity in a patriarchal system. Jinjuro the drunken samurai, Ryonosuke the impotent consumptive, and Kazuma the conflicted young man. The last of these she refuses to “ruin”, setting him free because she truly loves him and does not want to see him dragged into her life of crime, intent on reclaiming her goodness by reassuming the role of a conventional mother living an honest life with her daughter somewhere far away. Her “wickedness” is only really her desire to survive but an independent woman, good or bad, is always a threat to the social order and so she must be stopped lest her inconvenient desire to live a life free of male control become a “poisonous” example to those around her. 


An Inn at Osaka (大阪の宿, Heinosuke Gosho, 1954)

inn at osaka cap 2Heinosuke Gosho may be most closely associated with the Chekhovian interplay between laughter and tears, but what are you to do when life is so unutterably miserable that levity seems almost offensive? By 1954, many might have assumed that society was on the way to recovery, that the promises of the new democracy so proudly affirmed in the post-war constitution would be available to all paving the way for a freer and fairer society. Of course, that wasn’t quite the case and many found themselves trapped on the periphery of the burgeoning economic miracle in which unemployment was high and the bitterness of the times had led many to believe that human decency was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

Made a year after his renowned masterpiece Where Chimneys are Seen, An Inn at Osaka (大阪の宿, Osaka no Yado) is a much less cheerful affair in which suicide and degradation linger permanently on the horizon. The hero, Mita (Shuji Sano), has been exiled from Tokyo, demoted to the Osaka office after slapping his boss in argument over immoral business practices. Much reduced in circumstances, he has been unable to find a lodging house that suits his budget, the local barman lamenting that these days most of the hotels in the area have been co-opted by sex workers. Just at that moment, a dishevelled old man pops up and says he knows of a good place where the rent is reasonable and the innkeeper kind. As you might expect, it turns out that he works there. The innkeeper is his sister and though she is not particularly nice, the place is warm and friendly with three kindly maids – Orika (Mitsuko Mito) who is constantly pressed for money by her no-good husband, Otsugi (Hiroko Kawasaki) who is forced to live apart from her son, and “modern girl” Oyone (Sachiko Hidari) who is much younger and having a fling with the inn’s other longterm resident, Noro (Jun Tatara), a sleazy gentleman who likes to throw his weight around because he co-signed the loan on the hotel.

In once sense, the city of Osaka itself is being painted as a “fall” from sophisticated Tokyo, an earthier place where people do what they have to to survive. This Mita learns to his cost when drunken geisha Uwabami (Nobuko Otowa) picks up his “luxury English-made blanket” and peels off a thread which she burns to expose its smell. Wilier than the innocent Mita she tells him he’s been had, lamenting that it’s “Osaka’s shame” that they wilfully trick people from Tokyo. Mita is irritated, slightly hurt and embarrassed to have been deceived, but affirms that it hasn’t damaged his views on Osaka because in the present society everyone is being cheated by someone somewhere. In any case, he allows himself to be bamboozled by the innkeeper’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) into tracking down the teenage girl who sold it to him, Omitsu (Kyoko Anzai), who seems upset, explaining that she bought the blanket in good faith and has been tricked herself. During their visit, Mita notices that they’re in the middle of some sort of shamanistic ritual over the sickbed of her ailing father and feels pity for her but stops short of cancelling the debt there and then.

Not cancelling the debt even though he can see Omitsu never meant to trick him and cannot afford to pay him back, is part of his rather sanctimonious rebellion against the immoralities of the post-war society. He feels wronged and thinks that getting the money back for the blanket will somehow put things right, but like many of his attempts to help those in need it eventually backfires. Mita is a good man, compassionate and honest, but he’s also disappointingly conservative in ways he hasn’t quite realised. Uwabami, who has fallen in love with him, later chides Mita that he is like a star looking down on everything from above. He doesn’t quite understand what she means, failing to grasp that what she’s telling him is that though she can see that he cares, he has a tendency to view himself as somehow “better” than the world around him and lives in silent judgement of those he believes to be fundamentally different from himself.

After a brief argument, Uwabami confesses that she feels trapped and miserable in her impossible geisha existence, just trying to make enough money to survive when too old to ply her trade. She can’t quit because she’s responsible for her whole family – her younger brother has just been laid off from his railway job and his children will go hungry without her money. She provokes Mita a little, chastising him for not caring about her on a human level only for Mita to counter that he likes her but they live in “different worlds”. Disappointed, she laments that she thought they were the same, realising that Mita’s conception of the world is defined by ideas of middle-class respectability and that he views her as occupying a lower order, forever walled off from “decent” people like himself. Though he treats her warmly and regards her as a friend, there can never be anything more between them than that.

Omitsu later shows him something similar. Having scraped together some of the money to pay him back, she arrives at the inn only for Mita to try to refuse it. Otsugi offers her some sewing work for Noro who later takes advantage of her, gossiping with the maids that she was a “bargain”. To make matters worse, Omitsu gets caught on the way out and is berated by the innkeeper for bringing the hotel into disrepute. Mita starts to feel guilty. This is, after all, largely his fault – he pushed her about the blanket out of pettiness and brought her to the inn where she has debased herself to get back the money he took from her. He tries to return it but it’s already too late. “Why do you always insist on being good?” she asks him, partly offended that he won’t take her money because he now thinks it’s tainted by immorality. “I just want to trust in people” he tells her, beginning to realise that his ‘well-meaning” gesture is both patronising and futile because if he’d really cared about helping Omitsu, he could have done it before.

Mita is good person, but like everyone else he’s flawed and human. He genuinely wants to help, for the world to be better than it is, but in his goodness allows himself to be self-involved and insensitive. The reason he didn’t get fired from his job even for so great a transgression as slapping the boss, is that his grandfather founded the company. In an effort to break with the past, he decides to sell his grandfather’s expensive French pocket watch, but retains the chain as if unable to definitively sever the connection to his privilege. To prove that he’s done it for symbolic and not financial reasons, he spends the money taking Otsugi and Orika on a day trip to Osaka castle after Orika declines his offer of money of which she is in desperate need.

“Money’s everything, what happened to humanity?” Mita asks himself, still not quite aware of his position within the system. Mita refuses to conform to the demands of the post-war era as exemplified by his boorish boss who sneeringly asks if he’s a “socialist” while dismissing him as an “intellectual” and doing illicit backroom deals to get ahead, but he does so largely passively and with little more than resentment. At his farewell dinner, he reflects that had he not come to Osaka he might have quit his job but now he’s determined to stay and try to make things better. There might be something a little sanctimonious in his new found fire born of living among the poor now he’s on his way back to Tokyo, but he has perhaps awakened to his failings and is resolving to do better.

Meanwhile, the innkeeper finds the strength to break with the odious Noro, but unlike Mita decides to throw herself into the abyss of modernity by turning the hotel in a rent by the hour kind of place complete with Western beds and tacky decor. She too feels there are two kinds of people, refusing Otsugi time off to see her son, barking that “a dog doesn’t forget what is owes its master”, while Otsugi remains powerless, aware she’s entirely out of options as a young widow in the cruel post-war economy. Orika too gives up on changing her life after finding herself unable to separate from her no-good, drunken, violent, husband, while Oyone alone seems excited by the new job possibilities at the inn, and Omitsu, despite having coldly exclaimed that she’d do whatever it takes to survive, throws herself into “honest” work, unable to attend Mita’s leaving do because now her life is one of ceaseless industry which provides her no opportunity for rest. “None of us can say we’re really happy”, Mita laments, “let’s have the dignity to laugh in the face of unhappiness”. Everybody’s tired, everybody’s disappointed and afraid, but they haven’t lost their humanity and when there’s really nothing else, all you can do is laugh. 


Short clip (no subtitles)