Sound of the Mountain (山の音, Mikio Naruse, 1954)

“All I can do for you now is set you free”, a failed father laments. Mikio Naruse is renowned as a pessimist according to whom we are always betrayed by the world in which we live, yet bleak as it sometimes is 1954’s Sound of the Mountain (山の音, Yama no Oto) offers us what in Narusean terms at least might be considered a happy ending. Adapting a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, Naruse and his screenwriter Yoko Mizuki stop their story a little before the original’s conclusion offering an “open prospect” in which the chastened patriarch is forced into retreat, setting the young ones free while reflecting on paternal failures both national and personal. 

Now in late middle age, CEO Shingo (So Yamamura) is beginning to notice things he perhaps hadn’t before or had merely brushed aside such as the various ways the women around him continue to suffer because of inherently unfair patriarchal social codes. He dotes on his cheerful daughter-in-law Kikuko (Setsuko Hara) but is also aware his son/employee Shuichi (Ken Uehara) is having an affair. Confronted, Shuichi pledges to end the relationship but asks his father if he has honestly remained faithful all his life. Shingo doesn’t exactly deny anything, but remarks that it justifies nothing and his son ought to know better. 

According to Shingo, a man’s success is affirmed if he lives out his life unharmed but one’s success as a parent depends solely on that of the marriages of one’s children and on that front at least Shingo appears to be a failure. Shuichi offers barbed comments about his wife that sound like jokes but clearly aren’t, responding to query as to why they have no children with an excuse that his wife is a child herself, Kikuko’s face contorting momentarily in pain and shame at her husband’s cutting remark yet the only sign of childishness that we see in her is oft remarked cheerfulness. The Ogata household is currently down a maid and it’s Kikuko who’s been picking up the slack as perhaps a daughter-in-law is expected to do, taking care of the household and ensuring her in-laws are well cared for. Ironically enough, the Ogatas love her like a daughter, in part because of her ability to conform to what is expected of a wife despite their son’s indifference, though Shingo is perhaps learning to see past Kikuko’s placid expression, so like the impassive noh mask passed to him by a deceased friend, in the brief flickers of her discomfort. The old couple discuss a double suicide of a couple their age who have decided to leave quietly of their own volition with bleak humour, a look of such total and abject despair passing over Kikuko’s face as she replies to Shingo’s question if she too would write a note if she planned to die with her husband that she might leave one for him. 

The ill-defined relationship between Kikuko and her father-in-law is in essence paternal but profoundly felt, founded on a shared sense of connection and a deep respect. It stands in contrast, however, to that with his own daughter, Fusako (Chieko Nakakita), who returns home to her parents having discovered that her husband is also having an affair. In a sense, this reaction is a facet of post-war freedom, Shingo’s wife Yasuko (Teruko Nagaoka) may suspect her husband had other women but would have pretended not to and in any case would never leave an otherwise successful marriage over such a “trivial” matter. Fusako, meanwhile, has the freedom to demand better and to leave if she doesn’t get it but continues to hesitate blaming her father’s indifference towards her for her husband’s lack of respect something which she believes also fed into his poor choice of match. 

Cheerful, stoical Kikuko meanwhile finds herself caught between tradition and modernity unhappy in her marriage but uncertain if she has the right to escape it. Despite his parents’ niceness, Shuichi has grown into a cruel and selfish man, running down his wife and neglecting his work to romance his father’s secretary, who is not the mistress (not that she wouldn’t like to be), and apparently a violent drunk who routinely beats his girlfriend, a war widow and independent woman who sees nothing wrong in dating a married man because his wife is only waiting for one certain to return. Mirroring Kikuko, Kinuko (Rieko Sumi) is also pregnant but transgressively plans to have the child and raise it alone (supported by her friend and roommate). Telling no one, Kikuko learns that she is expecting but unilaterally opts for an abortion telling her husband that she cannot in good conscience give birth to his child knowing the kind of man he is. Confronting Shuichi, Shingo describes it as a kind of suicide and he is at least right in that she kills the image of herself as the good wife but does so by choosing her own integrity, seizing her agency in rejecting a dissatisfying present to seek a happier future. 

By contrast, we get the impression that Fusako, who has two children already, will likely return to her husband. Shuichi has the talk with his brother-in-law his mother hoped he would, but bonds with him in male solidarity, excusing his affair while advancing that Fusako doesn’t understand that he is merely working hard for their family laying bare a fundamental disconnect in the thinking of men and women further borne out by Yasuko’s assertion that men and women deal with sorrow differently. It’s this series of disconnects, between men and women, parents and children, that Shingo is beginning to bridge only to be confronted with his own patriarchal failures. While he and his wife are seemingly happy enough, he brushing off her self-deprecating remark that he was “unlucky” in marrying her only because her prettier sister died, his children’s marriages have each failed. His failure stands in for that of his generation, realising that he all he can do for them now is set them free. Meeting Kikuko in a park with wide open vistas, oddly like the final meeting of doomed lovers aware they must now part, Shingo vows retreat, planning to retire and move to the country with his wife as if liberating the youth of Japan from the oppressive social codes of the past in ceding the “open prospects” of the post-war society to his surrogate daughter in order that she might at least seize her freedom to chase her own happiness. 


Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

“Don’t let guys control you. You have to make them men” the heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Taisho-era drama Untamed (あらくれ, Arakure, AKA Untamed Woman) advises a former rival, yet largely fails to do so herself in the fiercely patriarchal post-Meiji society. Based on a serialised novel by Shusei Tokuda published in 1915 but set in late Meiji rather than early Taisho, Naruse’s adaptation essentially drops a contemporary post-war woman into a by then almost unrecognisable Japan but finds her hamstrung firstly by feckless and entitled men and then by complicit women who themselves cannot accept her transgressive femininity. 

As the film opens, a teenage Shima (Hideko Takamine) has just married wealthy grocery store owner Tsuru (Ken Uehara) but the marriage is already a failure. Though Shima is compared favourably with Tsuru’s previous wife who was apparently in poor health, presumably suffering with TB which required a sojourn by the sea, it soon becomes clear that Tsuru is as trapped by the archaic patriarchal social system as she is. He was apparently in love with a woman from a higher social class he was too afraid to pursue and despite still seeing her also has a mistress near their factory in Hokkaido whom he often visits under the guise of a business trip. Yet when Shima tells him she thinks she may be pregnant, he is unimpressed immediately questioning the paternity of the child while harping on about her having been married before which it seems is not quite true. Perhaps the reason that she has ended up a second wife despite her youth and beauty, Shima ran out on a marriage to a childhood friend arranged for her by her adoptive parents the night before the wedding not realising they had already registered the union without her knowledge or consent. 

This transgressive act at once signals Shima’s total disregard for conventionality and insistence on her own autonomy, yet it is also indicative of the fact she married Tsuru in search of a better life, knowing that to marry her adoptive parents’ choice meant only a life of servitude on the family farm. She is not always a terribly likeable figure, coldly explaining that she didn’t mind being fostered out because the adoptive family were wealthier and could give her a better life than she had with her birth parents yet it’s this sense of familial dislocation and the liminal status it gives her that allow her to take agency over her life in the way other women might not unwilling to lose the familial security Shima may not feel she ever had. Tsuru is also an adopted son, but the price for disobedience for him may be even higher and indeed as we later hear his inability to sort out his love life eventually sees him out on his ear. His pettiness in refusing to accept the child is his leads to an argument which causes Shima to slip on the stairs and miscarry the implication being that she may not be able to bear more children leaving her unlikely to remarry and thereby spurring her desire for a tempered independence. 

The fall is the last straw, Tsuru divorces her citing her inability to play the role of the proper wife while her birth family, from whom she is emotionally estranged, refuse to take her back as do the adoptive parents because of the embarrassment she caused them with the marriage stunt. She is often described as “like a man”, unable to win as Tsuru at once insists she wear the frumpy kimonos left behind by his previous wife who was a decade older, complains she wears too much makeup, and tells her to loosen her kimono belt to de-emphasises her figure, while criticising her for being unfeminine in her refusal to simply put up with his bad behaviour as is expected for a wife in this era. Shima fulfils all her wifely duties and as we see is in fact running his business as the women of the family are often seen to do while their husbands spend the money they earn for them on other women whether drinking with geishas or supporting mistresses in second homes. When her husband hits her, she fights back rather than shrinking away chastened as intended. 

Yet she cannot overcome the sense that a man is necessary for her success which cannot be accomplished alone. Cast out from her family, her brother installs her in the mountains to work in a geisha house if only as kitchen staff but soon does a flit to reunite with his married lover who has left her husband for him. While there she falls for the quiet and sensitive inn owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), also an adopted heir, whose wife is again ill with TB. Hamaya may be treating his wife a little better than Tsuru did his, but quite clearly assumes she’ll die in starting an affair with Shima who is then sent away to an even more remote inn to avoid a potential scandal. As Tsuru did with the woman he apparently loved, Shima continues to see Hamaya until he too succumbs to TB as an ideal of an impossible love while simultaneously accepting that he failed her in being too weak and cowardly to fight for their romance outright refusing to become his mistress. 

This may be one reason she is determined never again to be an employee but to own her own store which is why she ends up marrying tailor Onoda (Daisuke Kato) who introduces her to textiles and seamstressing at which she quickly proves adept having mastered the modern sewing machine. She marries Onoda in believing him “reliable”, but soon comes to regard him as lazy and feckless. The first shop fails because he can’t keep up with her. The male employees are always taking breaks to drink tea and play shogi, Onoda complaining that he’s tired while she does all his work for him and the housework too. Yet he also criticises her for a lack of femininity, snapping back that it must be her time of the month when she berates him in front of their employees while later after they’ve become successful complaining it’s “embarrassing” that his workhorse wife doesn’t know the things a sophisticated society woman would such as ikebana while flirting with the teacher he’s hired ostensibility to teach her. He even forces her to wear a frumpy and already somewhat dated classically Edwardian dress with a fancy bonnet which more resembles something a country girl might wear to church than the latest in Western fashions in an attempt to advertise their tailoring which seems primed to backfire. 

That she learns to ride a bicycle in this rather ridiculous outfit is again a symbol of her desire to seize and manipulate modernity even giving rise to a piece of innuendo from her much younger assistant Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) as to the pounding she’s been getting from the saddle. Kimura seems to think the problem with the business is that Onoda’s patterns are outdated, offering her a new modernity while she prepares to cut Onoda out on catching him with his mistress taking their best employee with her to ruin his business and start another of her own. Though once again she cannot leave alone only with a man the ending is perhaps more hopeful than might be expected from a Naruse film allowing Shima to commit herself fully to the sense of industry she embodies always ready to start again, work harder, and achieve her desires unwilling to be bound by conventional ideas of femininity or to simply put up with useless men who refuse to accept her for all she is. Yet she largely fails to make men of them, each of her various suitors failing to live up to her, ruined by an oppressive social system that encourages them to exploit female labour while taking it for granted in their intense sense of patriarchal entitlement. 


Repast (めし, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

“Must every woman grow old and die feeling empty?” asks the unhappy heroine of Naruse’s 1951 melodrama Repast (めし, Meshi) only to conclude that yes, she must, but that this in fact constitutes “happiness” as a woman. The first of Naruse’s Fumiko Hayashi adaptations Repast arrived in the year of the author’s death and is inspired by a short story left unfinished at the time of her passing. Screenwriter Sumie Tanaka was apparently convinced that the film should end with a divorce, as Sound of the Mountain would two years later, and consequently left the project after the studio mandated a more “sympathetic” ending. Superficially happy as it might seem, however, the conclusion is as bleak as one might expect from Naruse in which the heroine simply accepts that she must recalibrate her idea of happiness to that which is available to her and learn to find fulfilment in shared endeavour with her husband. 

As she explains in her opening voiceover, Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) married her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) five years ago in Tokyo against her family’s wishes and has been living on the outskirts of Osaka for the past three. Marital bliss has quite clearly worn off. As we see from the repeated morning scenes of the local community sending their sons off to school and husbands to the office, every day is the same and all Michiyo ever seems to do is cook and clean. The only words Hatsunosuke says to her are “I’m hungry”, and the only source of solace in her life is her cat, Yuri. Yet even this constant state of unhappy frustration is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Hatsunosuke’s spoilt and immature niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) who has apparently run away from home in rebellion against an arranged marriage. 

There is obviously a blood relation between Hatsunosuke and Satoko, but Michiyo’s jealously is not exactly unreasonable given the young woman’s childish flirtation with her uncle, perhaps an adolescent extension of her propensity to pout and preen to get her own way. Aside from all that, finances weigh heavily on Michiyo’s mind. Other than her drudgery, the constant source of friction in the relationship is Hatsunosuke’s low salary and lack of career success. Satoko’s family are a little wealthier and having been brought up in relative comfort she has little idea of the real world and is often tactless, remarking on Hatsunosuke’s worn out tie much to Michiyo’s chagrin. Hatsunosuke is happy enough to have her, but Michiyo is wondering if there’s enough rice in the jar to see them through and Satoko never stops to consider that they’re feeding her for free even falling asleep when Michiyo enjoys her one and only day off reuniting with old friends rather than preparing dinner as she’d been asked. Perhaps aware of the disruptive effect of her presence, Satoko pours salt on the wound by constantly asking her uncle if Michiyo doesn’t like her or is angry, further placing a wedge between husband and wife. 

For all that, however, Hatsunosuke would not be accounted a “bad” husband for the time save perhaps for his lack of career success. He is not cruel or violent, merely insensitive and distant, taking his wife for granted and unable to see that she is deeply unhappy while otherwise internalising a sense of guilt and failure in his inability to adequately provide for her. She meanwhile sometimes takes her dissatisfaction out on him in barbed comments about his low salary, her barely hidden contempt never far from the surface. Yet as her mother later points out in encouraging her go back to him he is “reliable, discreet, and honest”, qualities borne out by his later refusal to go along with a dodgy scheme organised by the old elite along with his nervous rebuttal of the attentions of the “mistress” from across the way. 

At heart a conservative woman, Michiyo too looks down on Ms Kanazawa (Kumeko Otowa) for her taboo status as the illicit lover of a wealthy man which is only in a sense her way of seizing her future as an independent woman running her own bar. Satoko, a woman of the modern era, sees less of a problem with it and is far less judgemental, though her own attempts are destined to end in failure thanks to her inability to work out that her present lifestyle is far above her current reach. Retreating to her Tokyo home, Michiyo looks for other options, admiring the apparently happier relationship between her younger sister and brother-in-law who now run the family shop. She asks a sympathetic cousin, Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who provides an alternate love interest, to help her find work but encounters the brutalising line outside the local employment office and then an old friend now a war widow desperate for employment because her benefits are about to run out and she has a young son to support. Later she spots the same woman handing out flyers, suddenly realising the fallacy of her fantasy of starting again as an independent woman. She pens a letter to her husband admitting that she’s realised how vulnerable she is without his protection, but remains undecided enough to avoid sending it. 

Hearing that Satoko, still childish but perhaps not quite as naive as she assumed her to be, has been laying her claws into Kazuo the final nail seems to have been struck. Michiyo knows she will return to Osaka, but does so not because she has rekindled her love for her husband but because she has accepted there are no better options. Hatsunosuke is dull, but he is in a sense reliable, and honest to the extent that he may be about to be rewarded for his moral unshakability. He cares enough about her to show up in Tokyo hoping, but not insisting, she will return with him which is perhaps as close to a declaration of love that one could hope for. On reflection she decides that a woman’s happiness is found in sharing the journey with her husband, accepting that she must subsume her own desires into his and cannot hope to expect emotional fulfilment other than that found in his satisfaction. Even for a Naruse film, and one as peppered with moments of slapstick humour as this one is, it’s an extraordinarily bleak conclusion subtly hinting at the iniquities of life in a patriarchal society in which the best a woman can hope for is a life of unrewarded drudgery. 


Wife (妻, Mikio Naruse, 1953)

The post-war world, to a certain way of thinking at least, promised a greater degree of freedom in which it might no longer be necessary to go on stoically bearing unhappiness in service to a social ideal. Then again, old habits are hard to break and not everyone is quite so equipped to acknowledge that misery can in a sense be a choice. Mikio Naruse’s Wife (妻, Tsuma) finds itself at a moment of transition in which the meaning of everything the word meant was perhaps beginning to change while the idea that a woman might choose to reject the role was no longer a taboo but an increasingly viable possibility. 

To the unhappily married Mineko (Mieko Takamine), however, the idea of independence remains somewhat distasteful. Each morning her husband, Nakagawa (Ken Uehara), leaves the house without a word. In fact, he doesn’t even look at her before silently walking away. She complains that she has no idea what he’s thinking, all he ever tells her is that he’s “tired” but she also resents him for failing to provide for her in the way that she perhaps expected. The couple live in a sizeable home, but Mineko has to rent out the upstairs to a series of lodgers as well as taking in sewing as a side job to make ends meet. What seems perfectly apparent is that the couple are ill suited, both in terms of temperament and of personal desires. Nakagawa is a soft hearted, romantic sort of man who isn’t particularly bothered if their lodgers pay their rent or not, while his wife is emotionally distant and infinitely practical as perhaps life has taught her to be. 

The peculiarities of life in Japan in 1953 place considerable strain on not only on the Nakagawas but on each of the other couples that we see. Those who married in haste during the war may be regretting their choices, while others, like Eiko (Chieko Nakakita) who rents the upstairs room with her husband Matsuyama (Hajime Izu), complain that the men they waited so long for came back changed. That Matsuyama cannot find a job in the difficult economic circumstances of the post-war society may not be his fault, but the necessity of relying on his wife for economic support has nevertheless eroded his sense of masculinity and left him a resentful drunk, destroying his wife’s love for him. Mineko is slightly scandalised when another tenant, art student Tanimura (Rentaro Mikuni), reveals that Eiko works not in a store but in a bar in Ginza, that being in truth the only kind of job that pays enough to support a married couple and a mother-in-law that a woman can get in 1953. Eventually Eiko leaves her husband, something else that scandalises Mineko, and resolves to live an independent life rather than remarry.

The idea of independence is repeatedly mentioned to her, but Mineko continues to reject it. Her sister jokingly suggests going into business together, while another customer, a widow with a young son, floats the idea of leaving the home of her late husband and opening a shop to support herself independently. She believes remarriage is not a viable option because she has a child, a thought echoed by another widow, Fusako (Yatsuko Tanami), who eventually decides to do something similar by returning to her hometown and going into business with a friend. Opening a shop is a popular option, but it of course requires investment and relies on having strong support, in Fusako’s case from female solidarity in teaming up with another woman in a similar situation. 

It might be easy enough to say that becoming financially independent is a choice on offer only to widows with children who have, in some way, already fulfilled their social obligations, while women like Eiko who chose childless self-sufficiency would still struggle to find acceptance even if their career were not dependent on an industry still itself taboo. That Nakagawa and Mineko have no children perhaps places an additional strain on the marriage. Nakagawa tells a colleague complaining about his family that he wonders if children might have made his life easier, while his only moment of contentment seems to be in playing with Fusako’s young son on the morning after spending an illicit night with her in an inn at Osaka. She sadly tries to ask what might be next for them, but he only wants to live in that moment knowing that their future is an impossibility. 

Despite his unhappiness, Nakagawa doesn’t seem motivated towards ending his marriage, perhaps out of guilt or because as friend later suggests it’s not so much Fusako that he loves as the possibility of a different future. On his return from his Osaka trip, he encounters a new tenant, Mineuchi, who has found her own way to be independent in becoming a mistress. Nakagawa seems to find the arrangement mildly distasteful, though it’s perhaps not so far off what he’s planning to do with Fusako. Mineuchi paid premium for the room and has even brought her own refrigerator and an electric gramophone so she is in a sense living the dream, especially as her “patron”, a furniture store owner, only visits twice a month. 

After learning that Nakagawa has fallen in love with Fusako, Mineko wonders if she should pay her a visit, but then receives one herself from the furniture store owner’s tearful wife who reveals that he is not a wealthy man and has ruined himself, and therefore her, after being bewitched by a Ginza bar hostess. Later, Mineko discovers that the furniture store owner’s wife took her own life in humiliation, lamenting that she didn’t have to go so far just because of her husband’s indiscretion, but also threatens to do the same herself to try and guilt Fusako into giving up her husband. 

Yet, pretty much everyone seems to tell Mineko that this is all her own fault and the reason her perfectly good husband has looked elsewhere is because she has failed as a wife. Sharp and emotionally distant, she alienates those around her but is devastated to realise that she’s lost her husband’s love and will most likely never be able to regain it. Her decision to talk not to him but to Fusako hints at the way in which women see each other as rivals and not as friends, actively holding each other back, as her sister Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama) also does in insisting on the social order over personal feeling, rather than attempting to find understanding or mutual support. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that ending her husband’s dream of romantic escape through emotional manipulation is unlikely to improve the quality of her married life. 

Mineko, however, never contemplates independence. She tells Fusako that she won’t consent to a divorce just to claim alimony, but privately wonders what would become of her if she left her husband. She might be able to put a stop to it this time, but who’s to say he won’t find someone else. What she seems primed to choose is socially mandated misery, rejecting the “freedoms” of the post-war age to end an unhappy marriage because she can’t conceive of herself as anything other than a “wife” and being miserable is apparently better than being nothing 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.


What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Yasujiro Ozu, 1937)

Japan was in a precarious position in 1937. Ozu’s What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureta ka) was released in March of that year but by July the Second Sino-Japanese War would be in full swing and on the home front increasing censorship would render this kind of inconsequential comedy a much less easy sell. True enough, the film includes no “patriotic” content though it does eventually reinforce a set of patriarchal values in the remasculinisation of a henpecked husband while quietly sniggering at a new bourgeois social class.

The drama unfolds in the home of a medical professor, Komiya (Tatsuo Saito), and his austere wife Tokiko (Sumiko Kurishima). The couple have no children and mostly lead separate lives. Tokiko spends her days with two close friends, widowed single-mother Mitsuko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), and wealthy older woman Chiyoko (Choko Iida) who is married to her husband’s friend, Sugiyama (Takeshi Sakamoto). The three women gossip about the usual things from fancy department store kimonos to new ways to laugh so you don’t get wrinkles along with the bizarrely difficult maths problems Mitsuko’s son has been studying in preparation for middle-school that none of them can answer. To help with the embarrassingly taxing homework, Tokiko offers to find a tutor, press-ganging her husband’s best student, Okada (Shuji Sano), into spending time with Mitsuko’s son Fujio (Masao Hayama) though it turns out that he too, a college graduate, is unable to solve these middle-school level problems. 

The real drama occurs when the couple’s neice, Setsuko (Michiko Kuwano), whom Tokiko had described as “proper” and “wholesome” rocks up from Osaka having become the epitome of a modern girl. Setsuko’s arrival further strains the Komiyas’ already fraying relationship as her surprising habits which include driving, smoking, drinking, and hanging out with geisha, continue to exasperate her aunt whose main objection to all of those things is that they aren’t appropriate because Setsuko is not yet married. To get away from his nagging wife who forces him to go golfing as usual when he doesn’t really want to, Komiya stashes his clubs with Okada and goes to a bar in Ginza where he meets Sugiyama who has also been forced outside by his wife. Sugiyama really does go golfing, promising to mail a previously written postcard to Tokiko on Komiya’s behalf, while he is eventually joined by Setsuko who has tracked him down to the bar despite being told to stay home and mind the house (the Komiyas have two live-in maids so the instruction seems unnecessary at best).  

As a “modern gal” Setsuko has some strangely old fashioned ideas even as she behaves like a 1930s ladette, striding around like man while drinking, smoking, and generally being almost as intimidating as Tokiko just in a more likeable fashion. Setsuko finds Komiya’s deferral to his wife embarrassing, encouraging him to be more masculine and stand up for himself even advising that he use violence to reassert his position as the man of the house. He seems uncomfortable with the idea but eventually does just that after a climactic argument once his lying about the golf and Setsuko’s nighttime adventures have been exposed. Caught in a moment of frustration, he slaps Tokiko across the face, leaving her to retreat in shock apparently “beaten”. The thing is, however, Tokiko likes it. She sees his slapping her as a sign of his love, as if she’s been needling him all this time in hope of a reaction while frustrated that perhaps he doesn’t care for her. Once he hits her, the marriage is rebalanced and repaired with traditional gender dynamics restored. She becomes more cheerful and deferent to his male authority, he acknowledges that he enabled her “arrogance” with his weakness as a man.  

Setsuko however, continues to shout at her uncle, disappointed that he apologised for his reaction and accusing him of giving away the victory he’d just won. He tells her that he’s simply using reverse psychology because wives like to believe they’re in charge and in the main it’s best to let them. Setsuko seems satisfied, but jokes with her new love interest Okada that he better not use reverse psychology on her. Or, he can, but she’ll just use reverse reverse psychology to get the upper hand, which perhaps undercuts the central message in praise of traditional gender roles. Nevertheless, What Did the Lady Forget? is full of Lubitschy late-30s charms from an unexpected sighting of real life star Ken Uehara at the Kabuki to Setsuko’s movie magazines featuring Marlene Dietrich and repeated references to Frederich March and William Powell proving that Ginza is open even in 1937, while the Komiya household descends into an oddly peaceful harmony of delayed marital bliss. 


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

The Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


Marriage (結婚, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1947)

Marriage DVD coverGenerally speaking, the heroes in the world of Keisuke Kinoshita are those who stick steadfastly to their principles and refuse to become corrupted by the world around them. This is all very well but perhaps somewhat idealistic given the pressures of the post-war world. 1947’s Marriage (結婚, Kekkon) finds the director working with scriptwriter Kaneto Shindo whose view of humanity was perhaps a little more pragmatic than Kinoshita’s and therefore recasts his heroes as essentially good people who eventually come to the conclusion that their moral rigidity is causing more unhappiness than compromise might and that an acceptance of complicity may in fact be the only possible way forward.

Fumie (Kinuyo Tanaka) became engaged to Sugawara (Ken Uehara) before he went away to war and the couple have been waiting to marry ever since. Though Sugawara returned promptly, unharmed, and seems to be in regular employment, they have been unable to formalise their union because Fumie and her sister are the only members of her family currently working which means that they cannot do without her paycheck. Things begin to look up when Fumie’s father Kohei (Eijiro Tono), formerly an accountant who lost his job when his previous employer went bust, runs into an acquaintance who’s now the owner of a successful restaurant. Shimamoto (Eitaro Ozawa) promises him a job which has the family overjoyed, not least Fumie who may now finally be able to marry, but their happiness is to be short lived. Kohei realises that Shimamoto’s business is built on underhanded practices intertwined with black market profiteering and wants no part of it. The two men argue. Kohei refuses the job and storms out. Fumie is back to square one.

Though Sugawara reiterates that he understands the demands of the situation they find themselves in and will wait as long as is necessary, he too is under pressure from his family to bring the matter to a suitable conclusion. Sugawara’s mother is in poor health and wants to see him settled before she goes. She understands that he has someone in mind, but would rather he marry as soon as possible even if that means marrying someone else entirely – for example, a lovely girl from the village whose omiai photo his aunt has helpfully delivered. Sugawara bears all of this with good grace, but stands firm in insisting he will wait for Fumie even if that means he never marries at all.

The dilemmas are two fold and occur across two generations. Fumie finds herself torn between a duty to her family who are now almost entirely dependent on her as a breadwinner, and her romantic desire to become Sugawara’s wife – a promise made before the war which the post-war world conspires to make impossible. Despite their dire circumstances, the Matsukawas are a happy family doing their best to muddle through though there is obvious tension between teenage son Kei (Shozo Suzuki) and his father over Kohei’s rigid refusal to compromise himself as the times seem to demand. Kinoshita captures the atmosphere of a precarious household with easy confidence, an icy silence descending as Kohei returns with a face like thunder making plain that his job opportunity has not worked out as planned. Everyone is upset and disappointed, but no one has the energy for an argument and so silence is all there is.

Fumie becomes ever more conflicted, especially after a strained meeting with Sugawara’s aunt who seems nice enough but drops a few hints about the girl waiting in the country and Sugawara’s sickly mother. She begins to wonder if her romantic dreams are selfish in a world so wracked with ruin that it seems unlikely that she will ever be in a position to marry. Perhaps it would be more responsible, or just less painful, to end things with Sugawara for good so that he at least can move on. As things stand, the couple only have their Sundays which are endlessly prolonged with additional activities to put off the time that they must part as long as possible. The destabilising visit from the aunt is followed by an awkward, almost celebratory dinner in which sake pushes difficult emotions to the fore. Fumie vacillates, unable to dance she eventually decides to give things a go, affirming that she will simply hold onto and follow Sugawara – seemingly unaware of the wider implications of her statement. During the dance, however, in which she is literally swept off her feet, she changes her mind again, shamed by her brief moment of joy into feeling selfish and self involved as if all those around her suffer in service of her eventual romantic fulfilment.

Where Kinoshita might have introduced a deus ex machina in which the Matsukawas would be the beneficiaries of divine reward for their selfless goodness, Shindo makes way for a more realistic (though perhaps equally melodramatic) solution in which Kohei reassumes his role of the head of the family and chooses his daughter’s happiness over his principles. As such he recognises that he must make the sacrifice that will save them all in abandoning moral righteousness and becoming complicit with the murkiness of the world in which he lives. Pragmatism, this time, wins out but only as a lesser evil in which a compromise is made in the favour of happiness which might, in a round about way, produce a greater change in an already unhappy world.


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Family Diary (家庭日記, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938)

Family Diary posterDespite the unending popularity of the romantic melodrama, Hiroshi Shimizu never quite got the bug. For Shimizu, romance is always abstracted – it either goes unresolved or reaches a point of resolution but only through unpleasant or unpalatable circumstances. There are few unambiguously “happy” couples in Shimizu’s movies, but Family Diary (家庭日記, Katei Nikki) takes things one step further in its twin tales of the romantic destinies of two very different students one of whom took the sensible path and the other the path of foolish love.

First we meet the sensible one. Fuji (Shin Saburi) takes a last twilight stroll with his current girlfriend, Kikue (Kuniko Miyake), after which they burn their letters as a symbol of their parting. Now that his brother’s business has failed, Fuji is marrying into a wealthy family who will pay for the remainder of his studies. Meanwhile his best friend, Tsuji (Ken Uehara), is grumpily drinking with a bar girl he plans to marry despite the objection of his parents. Fuji marries Shinako (Sanae Takasugi) and becomes an Ubukata while Tsuji marries Ume (Michiko Kuwano) and goes to Dalian in Manchuria. Some years later when Tsuji returns to Tokyo along with his wife and son, Ubukata has become a successful, happily married man. Coincidentally, Kikue who had gone to Manchuria to escape her heartbreak has also returned and opened up a small hairdressing shop which runs herself as a single woman looking after her younger sister, Yaeko (Mitsuko Miura).

The contrast between Ubukata and Tsuji is set up early on as Ubukata is repeatedly categorised as cold and unfeeling where as Tsuji is unmanly and oversensitive. Ubukata describes Tsuji as “sentimental”, “too delicate”, “almost the artistic type” for his compassionate desire to avoid awkwardness between their wives who, after all, must at least try to become friends if the relationship between the men is to be maintained. He urges him to “think about simpler things” which is most often the way Ubukata appears to think. That is not to say it didn’t hurt to abandon Kikue, but he comforted himself in the knowledge that he was doing the “best” thing based on a series of practical calculations. Ubukata is not heartless, but he is a committed pragmatist and sometimes insensitive to the suffering of others who might not agree with the way he works things out as his wife suggests when she (cheerfully enough) reproaches him for not paying attention to other people’s feelings.

Tsuji, having chosen to marry for love, at times seems envious of Ubukata’s settled home life with his traditional Japanese wife who trails behind him in kimono and rarely goes out without informing her husband first. Where Ubukata’s match might be seen as a betrayal of love for money, his home is harmonious whereas the Tsujis’ is not. Ubukata, it has to be said, is polite enough to Ume but makes no secret of his distaste for her unrefined character. Tsuji’s parents objected to the match because Ume was a bar girl (and, it is implied, a casual prostitute) and though Tsuji has no problem with her past, the snobbish attitudes of men like Ubukata continue to plague her however much she tries to play by the rules of their society. When Ubukata takes Tsuji to dinner, Tsuji asks him not to tell Shinako about Ume’s past in case she looks down on her to which Ubukata tells him he’s being over sensitive but later consents if only because he finds the subject distasteful in any case and is an old fashioned gallant sort of man.

Ume is however out of place in this upper middle-class environment as she demonstrates by provocatively lighting a cigarette while entertaining Ubukata and Shinako who ends up lighting it for her with a look of mild awe in her eyes. Ume fears this world will reject her – something it ultimately does when Tsuji tries to reconnect with his family, but in reality she has already rejected it herself. Unable to see past her own fears and regrets she doubts her husband’s love and lives in constant anxiety, waiting for the next slight from a hoity toity housewife to remind her that she doesn’t deserve all of this “happiness”. Though the Tsujis are “unhappy” there is also love, even if it is complicated and often misunderstood.

Both marriages are ultimately destabilised by external forces – Tsuji’s by his family’s attempts to expunge Ume by “stealing” her son and later plotting to pay her off on the condition she absent herself, and Ubukata’s by the resurfacing of the romantic love that he sacrificed for material gain. Though Ubukata has no intention of rehashing the past, he does want to be of service to Kikue (again, misreading her feelings and attempting to make himself feel better rather than improve the fortunes of another) – something which places a wedge between himself and his wife when she eventually learns of the circumstances which led to her marriage. Yet the wedge itself is not so much caused by Kikue as by Ubukata’s supreme coolness in which he sees no reason to explain himself to his wife because his actions have satisfied his own sense of righteousness and must therefore also satisfy hers.

Though Shinako is tempted by the sophisticated, westernised ways of “modern girl” Ume, and later pressed by fears her husband has never loved her, she remains a steadfast Japanese wife, effortlessly poised and always polite even under emotional duress. Despite their obvious differences, Shinako comes to care for Ume – even becoming something like her only friend, but Ume is only “accepted” by the world of the film after she “proves” herself as an emotional woman through an act of self inflicted violence which somehow demonstrates her essential purity and goodheartedness. Ume prepares to make an exit before being shown the door, but her act of pure desperation and extreme wretchedness becomes her social salvation and finally earns her a place in the moral universe of practical men like Ubukata who now rate her worthy. Thus the social order is restored, the official bonds of marriage held up, and Ubukata’s callous and calculating way of life found to be the better course, but there’s something less than convincing in Shinako’s assertion that everything will be alright now as she and her husband become another of Shimizu’s figures disappearing over a distant bridge.


The Lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

Lights of Asakusa posterThe lights of Asakusa (浅草の灯, Asakusa no Hi) still shone bright before the war. In this tiny corner of Tokyo well known for “low” entertainment, actors mingle with gangsters, lonely owners of amusement stalls, starving artists, bar girls, and wealthy industrialists each just trying to survive in an increasingly jittery city. Yasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomingeki” – stories of ordinary lower middle class people, and brings his characteristic wit and humanity to a tale of backstreet life where danger and ruin lurk on every corner and the only way to ensure one’s safety is to ensure you have the right defenders.

The main stage, if you will, is that of the Nippon-za “opera” company. This is, however, no great opera house but a run down little theatre presenting classical European opera for vaudeville audiences. The currently running show is Carmen, which will turn out to be appropriate for the events at hand. The trouble starts (or perhaps merely intensifies) when a young chorus member, Reiko (Mieko Takamine), begins attracting a range of wanted and unwanted male attention. Reiko, an orphan, had been taken in by a local bar mistress who later pushed her into the opera company but still expects her to make good on her investment by becoming a casual prostitute and taking on “customers” who present themselves at the bar (Reiko is around 16 or so, and therefore has just reached the age her foster mother thinks appropriate to join the business). The complication is that the man who’s taken a fancy to Reiko, Handa (Shunro Takeda), is a steel magnate who also finances the opera troupe meaning it’s not just the bar owner who’s coming under pressure but the financial security of the troupe too.

Being so young, Reiko finds her foster mother’s demands hard to refuse but is rescued by Sasaki (Seiji Nishimura) – the leading actor, married to leading lady Marie (Haruko Sugimura). The situation with Reiko exposes cracks already present in the group when Handa sends his goons in to disrupt the show, irking Sasaki to the point he takes off in a fit of artistic temperament. Meanwhile, another actor Yamagami (Ken Uehara), gets together with the rest of the troupe to ensure Reiko’s safety by hiding her with a feeble minded fan, Pokacho (Daijiro Natsukawa), so that she won’t be forced into a potentially life ruining situation.

Reiko’s plight is perhaps all too common on the streets of Asakusa. Having been orphaned she feels herself indebted to the bar mistress who took her in even if the relationship between them is not especially warm. She also feels grateful to have found a third family in the opera troupe and is afraid to lose her place there. Nevertheless, she is under extreme pressure to submit herself to this system of reciprocal arrangements and sleep with Handa solely to save making trouble for everyone else. Meanwhile her (sometimes) sympathetic roommate Beniko (Kayako Fujiwara) knows exactly what’s at stake through having been in a similar situation herself. She’s long been in love with the pure hearted Yamagami and is harbouring a degree of jealously in believing that Yamagami has a soft spot for Reiko, but she also half wants things to work out between them seeing as she has lost the “right” to love a man like Yamagami because she is no longer a virgin.

Shimazu had often been of a progressive mind, but sadly Beniko falls by the wayside, merely a sacrificial lamb prepared to give up on her dreams on Reiko’s behalf, so we never find out the limits of Yamagami’s justice loving heart or if he would be as bothered about Beniko’s past as she seems to fear he might be. Yamagami, brooding but righteous, would become one of matinee idol Ken Uehara’s best known roles though he too is teetering on the brink in Asakusa. Committed to defending the innocent, he tries to save Reiko’s honour but fails to declare a personal interest, entrusting her to the rather odd painter Pokacho who claims that his love for Reiko is of a spiritual, rather than carnal kind. Yamagami may succeed in his primary goal but still ends up in defeat, running away from the most important fight by retreating from Tokyo completely with a rebound girlfriend in tow, hoping to find kinder light in Osaka than he had on the dog eat dog streets of Asakusa.

Based on a novel by Hiroshi Hamamoto, Shimazu’s portrait of backstreet life sparkles with authenticity but also with a kind of hopelessness as each of these down on their luck “opera” stars laments their sorry fates and longs for a better gig somewhere less down and dirty. Meanwhile, the spectre of war lingers – when Carmen comes off the next show is to be “Two Honourable Soldiers”, filled with maudlin anthems of war which push the messages of patriotism and the glorification of offering one’s life for one’s country. The slimy Handa may have been defeated for now, but his kind are in the ascendent and the streets of Asakusa are unlikely to improve with only war and depression on the horizon.