Fireworks Over the Sea (海の花火, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

In the films of Keisuke Kinoshita, it can (generally) be assumed that the good will triumph, that those who remain true to themselves and refuse to give in to cynicism and selfishness will eventually be rewarded. This is more or less true of the convoluted Fireworks Over the Sea (海の花火, Umi no Hanabi) which takes a once successful family who have made an ill-advised entry into the fishing industry and puts them through the post-war ringer with everything from duplicitous business associates and overbearing relatives to difficult romances and unwanted arranged marriages to contend with.

The action begins in 1949 in the small harbour town of Yobuko in Southern Japan. Tarobei (Chishu Ryu) and his brother Aikawa (Takeshi Sakamoto) run a small fishing concern with two boats under the aegis of the local fishing association. The business is in big trouble and they’re convinced the captain of one of the boats has been secretly stealing part of the catch and selling it on the black market. Attempts to confront him have stalled and the brothers are at a loss, unsure how to proceed given that it will be difficult to find another captain at short notice even if they are already getting serious heat from their investors and the association.

Luckily things begin to look up when a familiar face from the past arrives in the form of Shogo (Takashi Miki) – a soldier who was briefly stationed in the town at the very end of the war during which time he fell in love with Tarobei’s eldest daughter, Mie (Michiyo Kogure). Shogo has a friend who would be perfect for taking over the boat and everything seems to be going well but the Kamiyas just can’t seem to catch a break and their attempt to construct a different economic future for themselves in the post-war world seems doomed to failure.

The Kamiyas are indeed somewhat persecuted. They have lost out precisely because of their essential goodness in which they prefer to conduct business honestly and fairly rather than give in to the selfish ways of the new society. Thus they vacillate over how to deal with the treacherous captain who has already figured out that he holds all the cards and can most likely walk all over them. They encounter the same level of oppressive intimidation when they eventually decide to fight unfair treatment from the association all the way to Tokyo only to be left sitting on a bench outside the clerk’s office for three whole days at the end of which Tarobei is taken seriously ill.

However, unlike Kinoshita’s usual heroes, Tarobei’s faith begins to waver. He is told he can get a loan from another family on the condition that their son marry his youngest daughter Miwa (Yoko Katsuragi). To begin with he laughs it off but as the situation declines he finds himself tempted even if he hates himself for the thought. He never wanted to be one of those fathers who treats his daughters like capital, but here he is. Both Miwa, who has fallen in love with the younger brother of the new captain, and her sister are in a sense at the mercy of their families, torn between personal desire familial duty. Mie, having discovered that her husband died in the war, is still trapped in post-war confusion and unsure if she returns Shogo’s feelings but in any case is afraid to pursue them when she knows the depths of despair her father finds himself in because of their precarious economic situation. Shogo is keen to help, but he is also fighting a war on two fronts seeing as his extremely strange (and somewhat overfamiliar) sister-in-law (Isuzu Yamada) is desperate to marry him off to her niece (Keiko Tsushima) in order to keep him around but also palm off her mother-in-law.

Meanwhile, a lonely geisha (Toshiko Kobayashi) who has fallen into the clutches of the corrupt captain is determined to find out what happened to someone she used to know who might be connected to Shogo and the Kamiyas and falling in desperate unrequited love with replacement captain Yabuki (Rentaro Mikuni) who is inconveniently in love with Mie. Kinoshita apparently cut production on Fireworks short in order to jet off to France which might be why his characteristically large number of interconnected subplots never coalesce. Running the gamut from melancholy existential drama to rowdy fights on boats and shootouts in the street, Kinoshita knows how to mix things up but leaves his final messages unclear as the Kamiyas willingly wave their traumatic pasts out to sea with a few extra passengers in tow still looking for new directions.


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Here’s to the Young Lady (お嬢さん乾杯!, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1949)

Here's to the young lady DVD coverLove across the class divide is a perpetual inspiration for melodrama, but what if the problem is less restrictive social codes and more emotional inertia and frustrated desire? Many things were changing in the Japan of 1949, racked by post-war privation and burdened with a scrappy desire to remake itself better and kinder than before. Keisuke Kinoshita, the foremost purveyor of post-war humanism, looks back to the 1930s for his 1949 cheerfully superficial romantic comedy Here’s to the Young Lady (お嬢さん乾杯!, Ojosan Kampai!). A tale of changing social codes and youth trying to find the courage to break free, Kinoshita’s easy romance is as breezy as they come but also hard won and a definitive step towards the freer, fairer world he so often envisages.

Keizo Ishizu (Shuji Sano), a 34-year-old self-made man and successful garage owner, is still single and seemingly pestered by his well meaning friends who keep finding matches for him that he doesn’t really want. Reluctantly, he acquiesces to the demands of his good friend Mr. Sato (Takeshi Sakamoto) who is desperate to introduce him to a pretty young woman from a wealthy family and agrees to meet Yasuko (Setsuko Hara) – a demure 26-year-old apparently keen to get married. Ishizu is instantly smitten, dumbstruck by her beauty and elegance. He begins to think all this marriage talk isn’t so silly after all, but then he is only a country bumpkin made good in the scrappy post-war economy. Yasuko is old money. How could he ever be permitted to enter her world and would she ever truly fit in his? Ishizu falls hard but his dreams of romance are eventually crushed when he discovers that the Ikedas, once a noble family, have hit upon hard times following half the family’s repatriation from Manchuria and the unwise business relations of Yasuko’s father which have landed him in jail as a co-conspirator in large scale fraud.

Despite his misgivings, Ishizu is talked into “dating” Yasuko for a few months during which he plans to find out if she could fall in love with him for real or if the marriage is likely to be an eternally one-sided affair which will make them both miserable. Ishizu resents being thought of as the cash cow, the classless nouveau riche upstart roped in to breathe new life into the fading aristocracy, but can’t let go of the hope that Yasuko might fall for his down to death charms even if not all of her family are very happy with this particular means of survival.

Yasuko’s grandparents are at great pains to emphasise (repeatedly) the immense gap in social class between Ishizu and their cultured, refined ingenue of a granddaughter who enjoys such elegant hobbies skiiing, tennis, and the ballet. Ishizu is into boxing and drinking at his favourite bar. He has no idea what the tune is that Yasuko plays on the piano that he bought for her and somewhat gauchely had delivered direct in front of the mildly scandalised family who can’t help feeling belittled by his generosity, but he finds it charming all the same even if his lack of refinement also stings with embarrassment. Nevertheless, the youngsters end up finding their own way – she takes him to the ballet where he is bored and then somehow moved, and he her to the boxing where she is frightened and then thrilled. They grow closer, but also not as Ishizu becomes increasingly frustrated (if in his characteristically good natured way) by Yasuko’s continuing aloofness.   

Perhaps unusually, it is Yasuko who struggles to move on from the idealised pre-war past in which she lived the romanticised life of a wealthy noblewoman who had not a care in the world and no need to worry about anything. The war has destroyed the nobility but this no Cherry Orchard-style lament for a declining world of elegance and rise of the unrefined in its place but a plea for rational thinking and a desire to move forward into a more egalitarian future. Yasuko’s grandparents cannot accompany her on this journey even if her parents and siblings are minded to be pragmatic, but it’s she herself who will need to make the decision to abandon her rigid ideas of what it is to be a fine lady and learn to embrace her own desires if she is to find happiness (as her father urges her to do) in the rapidly changing post-war world.

Then again, Ishizu is not entirely free of petty prejudice and the mild conservatism of the upwardly mobile as he shows in his intense hostility towards his best friend’s (Keiji Sada) tempestuous relationship with a club dancer (Naruko Sato). Nevertheless, after a good old fashioned case of fisticuffs and a proper consideration of all the obstacles he faces in winning the heart of Yasuko, Ishizu eventually reconsiders and urges his friend to chase happiness wherever it may lie. He vacillates and doubts himself, finds it impossible to approach the icy lady of the manor because of a feeling of social inferiority and finally decides to give up on an unrealistic idea of romance to spare them both pain, but then the obstacles were not all his to overcome and if there is a choice to be made it is Yasuko’s to make. A joyous throwback to the screwball ‘30s, Here’s to the Young Lady, banishes the darkness of the postwar world to the margins while its melancholy youngsters use romantic heartbreaks as a springboard to free themselves from the restrictive social codes of the past in order to choose happiness over misery and despair.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)

Introspection Tower (みかへりの塔, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)

vlcsnap-2016-12-10-01h34m55s187Shimizu, strenuously avoiding comment on the current situation, retreats entirely from urban society for this 1941 effort, Introspection Tower (みかへりの塔, Mikaheri no Tou). Set entirely within the confines of a progressive reformatory for troubled children, the film does, however, praise the virtues popular at the time from self discipline to community mindedness and the ability to put the individual to one side in order for the group to prosper. These qualities are, of course, common to both the extreme left and extreme right and Shimizu is walking a tightrope here, strung up over a great chasm of political thought, but as usual he does so with a broad smile whilst sticking to his humanist values all the way.

Introspection Tower opens with a tour being given to a group of women guided by one of the teachers (Chishu Ryu) in which he outlines the qualities of the school. There are no high walls or barbed wire fences, the front gate remains open at all times for the children to feel free within their new environment so they can learn to want to stay until they can be reintegrated into society. The school is run like mini commune with several houses segregated by sex and headed by a teacher and a female guardian – usually his wife, though the female houses also have a female teacher. The kids spend time in conventional education in the morning followed up with physical activity and vocational training in the afternoons to help them find work later in life. Parents are welcome to visit and also encouraged to write letters (notably, all of these kids seem to be able to read and write, at least to a degree). The kids also take care of the housework amongst themselves so they learn life skills like cooking and cleaning, again meant to help them as they return to regular society.

Rather than a straightforward narrative, Shimizu concentrates on the general life of the school with particular interest in four difficult pupils – new arrival Tamiko (Yuiko Nomura), a naughty upperclass girl who has difficulty learning to muck in with everyone else, Yoshio (Jun Yokoyama, formerly known as Bakudan Kozo) who likes get into fights, Masao (Norio Otsuka) who has his head in the clouds, and Nobu who can’t seem to get on with his stepmother no matter how hard she tries. Several times the kids get fed up with their reform school lives and try to escape, only to be brought back with their tails between their legs and, being children, they are apt to fight, grouse and get upset over nothing.

Perhaps unusual given Shimizu’s reputation the film is not exclusively told from the point of view of the kids but also looks at the often difficult lives of the adults who’ve dedicated their entire existences to caring for them. Each of the teachers and guardians is fully committed to looking after the children and trying to teach them how to be functioning members of society, living with kindness and responsibility. The house leaders are referred to as “mother” and “father” and the kids are intended to think of the other residents as siblings as if they’re all part of one big well functioning family. Discipline is carried out through self reflection, penance, and apology as the offending child is encouraged to realise why the way they’ve behaved is unacceptable and why they should avoid acting in that way in the future. Endlessly patient and giving, the adults’ lives are not easy ones as a female teacher finds herself snapping and hitting a pupil while another couple wonder if they’re really making that much difference when the children continue to misbehave.

About half way through, one naughty boy causes a huge problem by temporarily draining the well which is the school’s only source of water. Faced with a number of serious issues, the teachers decide to try channelling a riverbed from the nearby lake down to the school but they obviously don’t have money to pay for it. You can see where this is going and it’s certainly the most problematic aspect of the film as these young children are suddenly expected to do the strenuous, sometimes dangerous, work of physically carving a channel in the land with shovels and pick axes. Intended to sell the virtues of togetherness and responsibility, the river construction is, in essence, the forced labour of imprisoned minors who are given no rights to refuse, are not compensated for their efforts, and are children who are not equipped to handle this physically taxing work. Shimizu films the sequence like some kind of Soviet propaganda film as the axes rise and fall rhythmically as a hymn to the beauty of physical labour, but this particular celebration of the strength of the group over the individual is very difficult to take at face value.

Whatever Shimizu intended with the river building sequence, several of the pupils earn their freedom through taking part in it, supposedly reformed by hard work and community. Their “graduation” ceremony involves them reading poems and inspirational phrases aloud as a tribute to the school, but Shimizu neatly undercuts the happily ever after image with the presence of an older boy who has returned to visit. Regarding the school as his home, he has nowhere else to go and it quickly transpires he’s lost yet another job. Even when things seem to be going well, people find out he was in a reform school and it all falls apart. No matter how good the efforts of the teachers, the kids will face constant stigma and internalised shame for the rest of their lives making reintegration into society a difficult prospect. Nevertheless, Shimizu does seem to want to believe the school can do some good in looking after these troubled children who often come from difficult family circumstances.

An odd, confused effort from Shimizu, Introspection Tower still does its best to emphasise his humanist philosophy in the broadly progressive approach of the school which truly is dedicated to to teaching these children how to live in the Japan of the day without getting into trouble. The tone is one of good humour mixed with Shimizu’s naturalistic approach to filming children which shows them for all of the complicated young people they really are, deriving both great comedy and heartrending drama from their comic escapades and melancholy backstories. Making fantastic use of location shooting once again with an approach closer to his silent work than his talkies, Shimizu’s return to the world of progressive education is a strange and occasionally problematic one which is at times hard to read but, worryingly enough, seems to have its heart in the right place.