The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

blue sky maiden dvd coverYasuzo Masumura is generally remembered for dark, erotic and disturbing explorations of human behaviour but the early part of his career was marked by a more hopeful innocence and a less cynical yet still cutting humour. His debut, Kisses, was very much in the mould of the youth movie of the day but its themes were both more innocent and more controversial as a boy and girl bond after running into each other at the prison where both of their parents are serving time. Marked by darkness as it is, the worldview of Kisses is much kinder than Masumura would later allow as the pair of lovers seem to shake off their respective concerns to embrace the youthful joy and boundless freedom young love can offer.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Aozora Musume), Masumura’s second film, does something similar but with added bite. Working for the first time with actress Ayako Wakao who would later become something of a muse, Masumura takes a typical melodrama storyline – the returned illegitimate child treated as a poor relation by her own “family”, and turns it into a genial comedy in which Wakao’s charming heroine shines brightly despite the often cruel and heartless treatment she receives. As far as the family drama goes, the genre was still in its heyday and the family unit itself fairly unquestioned yet as Masumura shows times were changing and perhaps the family is not the bedrock it initially seems to be.

18 year old Yuko (Ayako Wakao) stands at the gates of adulthood. Taking a last photo in school uniform with her high school friends as they prepare for graduation, Yuko expresses her nervousness about being sent to Tokyo to live with the family of a father she barely knows while her friends worry about getting married or getting stuck in their tiny village all alone respectively. Tragedy strikes when the girls’ teacher arrives on a bicycle and informs them that Yuko’s grandmother has been taken ill. On her death bed, the grandmother reveals the reason Yuko is the only one of her father’s four children to be raised in the country is not a concern for her health, but that she is illegitimate. Yuko’s father, unhappy in his marriage, fell in love with his secretary (Kuniko Miyake) who later gave birth to Yuko, but he was already married with two children and so Yuko’s mother went to Manchuria leaving her to be raised in secret in the country.

Having nowhere else to go, Yuko arrives at her father’s large Western style house to be greeted coldly by her half-siblings, and treated as a maid by her still angry step-mother while her father (Kinzo Shin) is away on business. It has to be said that this model middle class family are an extremely unpleasant bunch. Step-mother Tatsuko (Sadako Sawamura) is shrewish and embittered while oldest daughter Teruko (Noriko Hodaka) spends all her time chasing wealthy boyfriends (but failing to win them because she’s just as mean as her mother). The oldest brother (Yuji Shinagawa) idles away in a hipster jazz band while the youngest boy, Hiroshi (Yukihiko Iwatare), is rude and boisterous but later bonds with his new big sister when she is the only one to really bother interacting with him.

The Ono household has always been an unhappy one. Yuko’s father married his wife after being bamboozled into it by an overbearing boss trying to offload his difficult daughter. Feeling trapped and avoiding going home he fell in love with a kind woman at work, had an affair, and wanted to marry her but wasn’t strong enough to break off not only from his unwanted family but also from his career in pursuing personal happiness. By Masumura’s logic, it’s this failure to follow one’s heart which has poisoned the Ono family ruining not only the lives of Tatsuko and the children who have no respect for their father or capacity for real human feeling (as Yuko later tells them), but also that of Yuko’s poor mother  whose life has been one of constant suffering after being unfairly jettisoned by a man who was bold enough to have an affair, but not to defy social conventions and leave an unhappy home.

Yuko herself, however, refuses to allow her life to be ruined by the failings of others. Looking up at the bright blue sky with her teacher (Kenji Sugawara), she learns to create her own stretch of heaven if only in her own mind. Though others might have fought and complained at being forced into the role of maid in what is her own family home, Yuko bears her new circumstances with stoicism and good humour. Thanks to her kindness and enthusiasm, the family maid, Yae (Chocho Miyako), is quickly on her side and if Teruko’s latest target, Hirooka (Keizo Kawasaki) starts to prefer the “new servant girl” his defection is completely understandable. Unlike later Masumura heroines, Yuko’s “revenge” is total yet constructive. She refuses to be cowed by unkindness, remains pure hearted in the face of cruelty, and resolves to find her own happiness and encourage others to do the same. With a few cutting words offered kindly, Yuko gets to the heart of the Onos, essentially reminding her father that all of this unhappiness is his own fault – he made his bed 20 years ago, now he needs to lie it and be a full-time husband and father to the family of lonely misfits he created in the absence of love.

Light and bright and colourful, The Blue Sky Maiden is among Masumura’s more cheerful films, not least because it does seem to believe that true happiness is possible. Yuko does not so much defy social convention as ignore it. She lives openly and without rancour or regret. She takes things as she finds them and people (aside from the Onos) are good to her because she is good to them. Though Masumura’s later work would become increasingly dark and melancholy, Yuko bears out many of his most central themes in her steadfast claim to her own individuality and equally steadfast commitment to enabling the happiness of others in defiance of prevailing social codes.


Diary of a Mad Old Man (瘋癲老人日記, Keigo Kimura, 1962)

e0022344_20155095Junichiro Tanizaki is giant of Japanese literature whose work has often been adapted for the screen with Manji alone receiving four different filmic treatments between 1964 and 2006. His often erotic themes tallied nicely with those of the director of the 1964 version, Yasuzo Masumura who also adapted Tanizaki’s The Tattooist under the title of Irezumi, both of which starred Masumura’s muse Ayako Wakao. Preceding both of these, Keigo Kimura’s Diary of a Mad Old Man (瘋癲老人日記, Futen Rojin Nikki) adapts a late, and at that time extremely recent, work by Tanizaki which again drew some inspiration from his own life as it explores the frustrated sexuality of an older man facing partial paralysis following a stroke. Once again employing Wakao as a genial femme fatale, Kimura’s film is a broadly comic tale of an old man’s folly, neatly undercutting its darker themes with naturalistic humour and late life melancholy.

Tanazaki’s stand in is a wealthy old man, Utsugi (So Yamamura), who has recently suffered a stroke which has paralysed his right hand and significantly reduced his quality of life. He currently operates a large household with a number of live-in staff, including a round the clock nurse, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. The son, Joukichi (Keizo Kawasaki), is a successful executive currently having an affair with a cabaret dancer, leaving his extremely beautiful wife, Sachiko (Ayako Wakao), herself also formerly a dancer, at a loose end. Though approaching the end of his life and possibly physically incapable of acting on his desire, Utsugi is consumed with lust for Sachiko and thinks of little else but how to convince her to allow him even the smallest of intimacies. Sachiko, for her part, is not particularly interested in pursuing a romantic entanglement with her aged father-in-law but is perfectly aware of her power over him which she uses to fulfil her material desires. Meanwhile, Utsugi’s rather pathetic behaviour has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the household who view his desperation with a mix of pity, exasperation, and outrage.

Kimura’s film takes more of an objective view than the subjective quality of the title would suggest but still treats its protagonist with a degree of well intentioned sympathy for a man realising he’s reached the final stages of his life. Utsugi’s sexual desire intensifies even as his body betrays him but this very life force becomes his rebellion against the encroaching onset of decay as he clings to his virility, trying to off-set the inevitable. As such, conquest of Sachiko becomes his last dying quest for which he is willing to sacrifice anything, undergo any kind of degradation, simply to climb one rung on the ladder towards an eventual consummation of his desires.

Sachiko, instinctively disliked by her mother-in-law, is more than a match for Utsugi’s finagling. A young, confident, and beautiful woman, Sachiko has learned how to do as she pleases without needing permission from anyone for anything. In this, the pair are alike – both completely self aware yet also in full knowledge of those around them. The strange arrangement they’ve developed is a game of reciprocal gift giving which is less a war than a playful exercise in which both are perfectly aware of the rules and outcomes. Sachiko allows Utsugi certain privileges beginning with slightly patronising flirtation leading to leaving the bathroom door unlocked when she showers (behind a curtain) and permitting Utsugi to kiss and fondle her leg (even if she hoses it down, complaining it feels like being licked by a slug).

Tanizaki’s strange fetish is again in evidence as Utsugi finally deifies Sachiko in creating a print of the sole of her foot which he intends to have carved into his grave so he can live protected beneath her forever, as insects are under the foot of Buddha. This final act which takes the place of a literal consummation goes some way towards easing his desire but may also be the one which pushes him towards the grave he was seeking to avoid. Notably, Sachiko is bored and eventually exhausted by the entire enterprise even whilst Utsugi is caught in the throws of his dangerous ecstasy.

Other members of the household view the continuing interaction of Sachiko and Utsugi with bemusement, pitying and resenting the old man for his foolishness whilst half-admiring, half disapproving of Sachiko’s manipulation of his desires. Utsugi had been a stingy man despite his wealth and even now risks discord within his own family by refusing to assist his grown-up daughter who finds herself in financial difficulty and in need of familial support, yet lavishing vast sums on Sachiko for expensive trinkets even as she continues an affair with a younger man right under his nose. Still, Sachiko uses what she has and gets what she wants and Utsugi attempts to do the same only less successfully, completely self aware of his foolishness and the low probability of success yet buoyed with each tiny concession Sachiko affords him. A wry and unforgiving exploration of the link between sex and death, Diary of a Mad Old Man undercuts the less savoury elements of its source material with a broadly humorous, mocking tone gradually giving way to melancholy as the old man begins to accept his own impotence, the light around him dwindling while Sachiko’s only brightens.


 

Warning from Space (宇宙人東京に現わる, Koji Shima, 1956)

Warning_from_Space_1956
Taro Okamoto illustration from Japanese DVD liner notes

Apparently the citizens of Japan are a little more cautious than some of their contemporaries when it comes to extraterrestrial contact. After all, the kindly aliens who visit with helpful advice in The Day the Earth Stood Still end up leaving in a huff because humanity is just not ready to accept their offers of interplanetary research and is constantly trying eliminate the alien “threat”. Hence, though the people of Japan recoil in horror from the Pairans in their scary starman shape, they start paying attention when they come in the form of a pretty showgirl. Somethings never change, eh?

Mysterious flying objects have been spotted above the skies of Tokyo. Nobody knows what they are with some leaning towards aliens and others becoming paranoid that Japan is under attack from another nation who are positioning spy satellites above its capital city. There have also been sightings of mysterious creatures near sources of water, usually accompanied by blue flickering lights.

These strange creatures turn out to be a scientific delegation from the planet Paira (inconveniently located directly opposite Earth but behind the sun which is why it’s never been discovered). They are a race of star shaped bipedal creatures with a single eye in the middle of their chests. Actually, they are quite cute and completely non-threatening in appearance and seem quite hurt that the Earthlings think they are ugly and are too frightened to talk to them. Consequently, they send their best scientist through a special process to change his appearance to one humans find more appealing which just happens to involve copying that of a local superstar showgirl.

The Pairans have come in peace! With their advanced technology they can see a rogue planet is about to crash into Earth and destroy it forever. This is bad news for everyone so they’ve come to warn humanity and try to help, if only they could get someone to listen to them. They also know that Doctor Matsuda has been developing a nuclear weapon which is far more powerful than the atomic bomb. The Pairans think this is a very bad idea and he should stop, but only after they’ve used it to destroy the rogue planet before it’s too late.

Warning from Space (宇宙人東京に現わる, Uchujin Tokyo ni Arawaru) is Daiei’s first colour sci-fi film though it’s actually not all that colourful aside from that weird blue light. In contrast to many other films from the era and even those previously made by Daiei, Warning From Space seems to have an oddly ambivalent view on weapons of mass destruction. The Pairans have chosen Japan because they think the Japanese are the best placed to appreciate the destructive power of an atomic bomb and will therefore share their stance on the necessity of abandonment. Yet, they also know Dr. Matsuda has been working on an even more destructive weapon – the Pairans also discovered this power at some point in their history but abandoned it over fears of its power being misused. They supposedly developed a much safer way to harness nuclear energy but now need Matsuda’s research to destroy the rogue planet. Like much of the Pairan’s behaviour, this doesn’t make complete sense (at least, to those of us used to Earth logic).

The Pairans are very friendly, but a bit shy. Their idea of “making contact” seems to be running away when the humans spot them and start screaming. Seeing something so unusual is probably quite traumatising, but the Pairans are so cute with their starfish outfits and comical waddle that it’s strange to think anyone could find them threatening. The Pairans are even a little upset that Earthlings find them “ugly”. They think the best thing to do is appear in a more pleasing form so they freak everyone out by visiting a popular musical show and stealing a picture of the star to clone. Because every scientist on Earth is going to want to listen to the advice of a cabaret showgirl, right? That’s always how it happens. She doesn’t even care very much about maintaining her disguise and keeps doing alien stuff like jumping really high in the air or dematerialising in one place and rematerialising somewhere else, but then no one seems to find this that weird anyway.

Basically, the Pairans have come to tell the Earthlings not to go ahead with their weapons research because they don’t know what they’re getting into. However, they also need to use this research to destroy the rogue planet which is a bit contradictory. The Pairans are apparently too shy to actually talk to the UN and think the other nations are kind of mean anyway so Japan will have to sort this out on their own while the Pairans nod appreciatively in the background (other than when they randomly disappear for a whole month until coming back to sort everything out because humans are rubbish). Of course, evil corporations are also after Matsuda’s super weapon but he’s a proper scientist and doesn’t want to sell, so they kidnap him and tie him to a chair out of spite while the world simultaneously floods and burns thanks to the rogue planet’s effect on the atmosphere.

Finally, science saves the day in a quiet and methodical way! All the creatures of the Earth emerge from underground. The birds are singing, turtles are swimming, racoons are doing racoon stuff again all while the sun is shining brightly and children are singing, so it’s definitely all going to be OK and Earth has probably made a whole new set of star shaped friends! All in all it was probably worth near destruction. Warning from Space is the kind of science fiction film which is always 100% serious, with the consequence that it’s not serious at all. Not as much fun as some of other B-movies of the era it nevertheless adds its own charms particularly in the form of the completely batty Pairans and their cute star shaped suits but fails to offer anything memorable beyond them.


Original trailer (poor quality, no subtitles)

The adorable starfish-like Pairans were designed by iconic Japanese artist Taro Okamoto who is probably best known for the Tower of the Sun constructed for Expo ’70.