Travelling Actors (旅役者, Mikio Naruse, 1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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