A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

A Legend or Was it posterIn 1951’s Boyhood, Kinoshita had painted a less than idealised portrait of village life during wartime. With pressure mounting ranks were closing, “outsiders” were not welcome. The family at the centre of Boyhood had more reasons to worry in that they had, by necessity, removed themselves from a commonality in their ideological opposition to imperialism but newcomers are always vulnerable when they find themselves undefended and without friends. 1963’s A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Shito no Densetsu, AKA Legend of a Duel to the Death) tells a similar story, but darker as a family of evacuees fall foul not only of lingering feudal mores but a growing resentment in which they find themselves held responsible for all the evils of war.

Beginning with a brief colour framing sequence, Kinoshita shows us a contemporary Hokkaido village filled with cheerful rural folk who mourn each other’s losses and share each other’s joys while shouldering communal burdens. A voice over, however, reminds us that something ugly happened in this beautiful place twenty years previously. Something of which all are too ashamed to speak. Switching back to black and white and the same village in the summer of 1945, he introduces us to Hideyuki Sonobe (Go Kato) who has just come home from the war to convalesce from a battlefield injury. Hideyuki’s engineer father went off to serve his country and hasn’t been heard from since, and neither has his brother who joined the air corp. His mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), and younger brother Norio (Tsutomu Matsukawa) have evacuated from Tokyo to this small Hokkaido village where they live in a disused cottage some distance from the main settlement.

The family had been getting by in the village thanks to the support of its mayor, Takamori, but relations have soured of late following an unexpected marriage proposal. Takamori’s son Goichi (Bunta Sugawara), a war veteran with a ruined hand and young master complex, wants to marry Kieko. She doesn’t want to marry him, but the family worry about possible repercussions if they turn him down. It just so happens that Hideyuki recognises Goichi and doesn’t like what he sees – he once witnessed him committing an atrocity in China and knows he is not the sort of man he would want his sister to marry, let alone marry out of fear and practicality. Hideyuki, as the head of the family, turns the proposal down and it turns out they were right to worry. The family’s field is soon vandalised and the police won’t help. When other fields meet the same fate, a rumour spreads that the Sonobes are behind it – taking revenge on the village on as a whole. The villagers swing behind Goichi, using the feud as a cover to ease their own petty grievances.

City dwellers by nature, the Sonobes have wandered into a land little understood in which feudal bonds still matter and mob mentality is only few misplaced words away. The village serves a microcosm of Japanese society at war in which Takamori becomes the unassailable authority and his cruel son the embodiment of militarism. Goichi embraces his role as a young master with relish, riding around the town on horse back and occasionally barking orders at his obedient peasants, stopping only to issue a beating to anyone he feels has slighted him – even taking offence at an innocuous folksong about a man who was rejected in love and subsequently incurred a disability. Despite all of that, however, few can find the strength to resist the pull of the old masters and the majority resolutely fall behind Goichi, willing to die for him if necessary.

As the desperation intensifies and it appears the war, far off as it is, is all but lost, a kind of creeping madness takes hold in which the Sonobes become somehow responsible for the greater madness that has stolen so many sons and husbands from this tiny village otherwise untouched by violence or famine. An embodiment of city civilisation the Sonobes come to represent everything the village feels threatened by, branded as “bandits” and blamed for everything from murder to vegetable theft. The central issue, one of a weak and violent man who felt himself entitled to any woman he wanted and refused to accept the legitimacy of her right to refuse, falls by the wayside as just another facet of the spiralling madness born of corrupted male pride and misplaced loyalties.

Kinoshita returns to the idyllic countryside to close his framing sequence, reminding us that these events may have been unthought to the level of myth but such things did happen even if those who remember are too ashamed to recall them. Tense and inevitable, A Legend or Was It? reframes an age of fear and madness as a timeless village story in which the corrupted bonds of feudalism fuel the fires of resentment and impotence until all that remains is the irrationality of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2017-09-08-02h54m10s546Yasujiro Shimazu may not be as well known as some of his contemporaries such as the similarly named Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu, but during in his brief yet prolific career which was cut short by his early death just before the end of the war, Shimazu became the father of one of the most prominent genres in Japanese cinema –  the “shomingeki”, which focussed on the lives ordinary lower middle-class people. Shimazu’s early films were noted for their unusual naturalism but 1937’s The Trio’s Engagements (婚約三羽烏, Konyaku Sanbagarasu) is pure Hollywood in its screwball tale of three silly young men and their respective romantic difficulties which are sorted out with the amusing kind of neatness you can only find in a 1930s cinematic farce.

Shuji Kamura (Shuji Sano) has been looking for a job in Japan’s depression hit Tokyo for some time and his long suffering girlfriend, Junko (Kuniko Miyake), has finally gotten fed up with his listlessness and decided it might be better if she left him on his own for a while to sort himself out. Slightly panicked, Shuji heads off to see about a job at a department store specialising in rayon fabrics. Undergoing a rather odd interview, he meets two other men in the same position – well to do Ken Taniyama (Ken Uehara), and down on his luck chancer Shin Miki (Shin Saburi). Luckily all three are employed that day and start working in the store but trouble brews when they each fall for the charms of the boss’ daughter, Reiko (Mieko Takamine).

Despite the contemporary setting and the difficulty of finding work for even educated young men providing a starting point for the drama, Shimazu creates a truly “modern” world full of neon lights and Westernised fashions. The trio work in a department store which sells rayon – a cheap substitute for silk being sold as the latest sophisticated import from overseas, and the store itself is designed in a modernist, art deco style which wouldn’t look out of place in any Hollywood film of the same period. Likewise, though the store is largely staffed by men catering to a largely female clientele, it maintains a sophisticated atmosphere with staff members expected to provide solicitous care and attention to each and every customer.

The guys do this with varying degrees of commitment as Shin and Ken pull faces at each other across the floor and Shuji wastes time on the roof. Shimazu packs in as many quick fire gags as possible beginning the the bizarre job interviews in which Shuji ends up doing some very in-depth role play while Shin expounds on the virtues of rayon as if he were some kind of fabrics genius. Shin Miki is your typical chancer, turning up to his job interview with a thick beard which he later shaves making him all but unrecognisable, and even cheating Ken out of a few coins he’s been using to show off his magic tricks before bamboozling his way into Shuji’s flat.

The central, slapstick conceit is that each of the guys is about to jettison their previous partners for a false infatuation with the beautiful Reiko. Shuji is mostly on the rebound from Junko who may or may not come back to see if he’s sorted himself out, while Ken is uncertain about an arranged marriage, and Shin has a secret country bumpkin girlfriend he doesn’t want anyone to know about. Their respective crushes nearly spell the end for their friendship but then Reiko has her own ideas about marriage which don’t involve shop boys or a future in the rayon business. Eventually the guys realise they’ve all been a little silly and run back into the arms of the women they almost threw over, finding happiness at last in their otherwise ordinary choices.

Shimazu makes brief use of location shoots as Shin and Reiko walk along the harbour but mostly sticks to stage sets including the noticeably fake cityscape backdrop on the shop’s roof. The major draw is the “trio” at the centre which includes some of Shochiku’s most promising young leading men who would all go on to become huge stars including 30s matinee idol Ken Uehara, Shuji Sano, and Shin Saburi. Light and filled with silly, studenty humour The Trio’s Engagements is a deliberately fluffy piece designed to blow the blues away in increasingly difficult times, but even if somewhat lacking in substance it does provide a window onto an idealised 1930s world of Westernised flappers, cheap synthetic products, and frivolous romance.


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.


 

Nobuko (信子, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1940)

vlcsnap-2016-12-09-01h11m57s027The well known Natsume Soseki novel, Botchan, tells the story of an arrogant, middle class Tokyoite who reluctantly accepts a teaching job at a rural school where he relentlessly mocks the locals’ funny accent and looks down on his oikish pupils all the while dreaming of his loyal family nanny. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Nobuko (信子) is almost an inverted picture of Soseki’s work as its titular heroine travels from the country to a posh girls’ boarding school bringing her country bumpkin accent and no nonsense attitude with her. Like Botchan, though for very different reasons, Nobuko also finds herself at odds with the school system but remains idealistic enough to recommend a positive change in the educational environment.

Travelling from the country to take up her teaching job, Nobuko (Mieko Takamine) moves in with her geisha aunt to save money. When she gets to the school she finds out that she’s been shifted from Japanese to P.E. (not ideal, but OK) and there are also a few deductions from her pay which no one had mentioned. The stern but kindly headmistress is quick to point out Nobuko’s strong country accent which is not compatible with the elegant schooling on offer. The most important thing she says is integrity. Women have to be womanly, poised and “proper”. Nobuko, apparently, has a lot to learn.

As many teachers will attest, the early days are hard and Nobuko finds it difficult to cope with her rowdy pupils who deliberately mock her accent and are intent on winding up their new instructor. One girl in particular, Eiko (Mitsuko Miura), has it in for Nobuko and constantly trolls her with pranks and tricks as well as inciting the other girls to join in with her. As it turns out, Eiko is something of a local trouble maker but no one does anything because her father is a wealthy man who has donated a large amount of money to the school and they don’t want to upset him. This attitude lights a fire in Nobuko, to her the pupils are all the same and should be treated equally no matter who their parents are. As Nobuko’s anger and confidence in her position grow, so does Eiko’s wilfull behaviour, but perhaps there’s more to it than a simple desire to misbehave.

Released in 1940, Nobuko avoids political comment other than perhaps advocating for the importance of discipline and education. It does however subtly echo Shimizu’s constant class concerns as “country bumpkin” Nobuko has to fight for her place in the “elegant” city by dropping her distinctive accent for the standard Tokyo dialect whilst making sure she behaves in an “appropriate” fashion for the teacher of upper class girls.

This mirrors her experience at her aunt’s geisha house which she is eventually forced to move out of when the headmistress finds out what sort of place she’s been living in and insists that she find somewhere more suitable for her position. The geisha world is also particular and regimented, but the paths the two sets of female pupils have open to them are very different. Nobuko quickly makes friends with a clever apprentice geisha, Chako (Sachiko Mitani), who would have liked to carry on at school but was sold owing to her family’s poverty. Though she never wanted to be a geisha, Chako exclaims that if she’s going to have to be one then she’s going to be the world’s best, all the while knowing that her path has been chosen for her and has a very definite end point as exemplified by Nobuko’s aunt – an ageing manageress who’s getting too old to be running the house for herself.

Eiko’s problems are fairly easy to work out, it’s just a shame that no one at the school has stopped to think about her as a person rather than as the daughter of a wealthy man. Treated as a “special case” by the teachers and placed at a distance with her peers, Eiko’s constant acting up is a thinly veiled plea for attention but one which is rarely answered. Only made lonely by a place she hoped would offer her a home, Eiko begins to build a bond with Nobuko even while she’s pushing her simply because she’s the only one to push back. After Nobuko goes too far and Eiko takes a drastic decision, the truth finally comes out, leading to regrets and recriminations all round. Despite agreeing with the headmistress that perhaps she should have turned a blind eye like the other teachers, Nobuko reinforces her philosophy that the girls are all the same and deserve to be treated as such, but also adds that they are each in need of affection and the teachers need to be aware of this often neglected part of their work.

Lessons have been learned and understandings reached, the school environment seems to function more fully with a renewed commitment to caring for each of the pupils as individuals with distinct needs and personalities. Even Chako seems as if she may get a much happier ending thanks to Nobuko’s intervention. An unusual effort for the time in that only two male characters appear (one a burglar Nobuko heroically ejects assuming him to be Eiko playing a prank, and the other Eiko’s father) this entirely female led drama neatly highlights the various problems faced by women of all social classes whilst also emphasising Shimizu’s core humanist philosophies where compassion and understanding are found to be essential components of a fully functioning society.


 

The Golden Demon (金色夜叉, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-09-22-02h33m21s455Perhaps best known for his work with children, Hiroshi Shimizu changes tack for his 1937 adaptation of the oft filmed Ozaki Koyo short story The Golden Demon (金色夜叉, Konjiki Yasha) which is notable for featuring none at all – of the literal kind at least. A story of love and money, The Golden Demon has many questions to ask not least among them who is the most selfish when it comes to a frustrated romance.

Poor relation Kanichi (Daijiro Natsukawa) is a university student living with friends of his deceased father. He and the daughter of the family which took him in, Miya (Hiroko Kawasaki), have grown up together and formed an emotional attachment they each believed would naturally lead to marriage. However, Miya has received a proposal from a wealthy gentlemen which her cash strapped father is strongly advising her to accept. Though she loves Kanichi deeply, Miya is torn – both by a feeling of duty to marry well and keep her parents in comfort, and by a fear of leaving her middle-class lifestyle for a life of uncertain poverty with the still studying Kanichi.

When she ultimately agrees to the arranged marriage, Kanichi becomes angry and accuses Miya of placing monetary concerns over true feeling. Disappearing from Miya’s life entirely, Kanichi determines to destroy himself in a vicious quest for revenge. Abandoning his idealistic, progressive concerns, Kanichi becomes a heartless money lender with a plan to one day amass a great fortune only to throw it in the face of his former love. When Miya’s husband, Tomiyama (Toshiaki Konoe), appears at his door apparently fallen on hard times, Kanichi’s plan looks set for success.

In true Shimizu fashion, he remains non-judgemental of his characters save for that of the elderly money lender who, when questioned by his son, offers a series of flimsy justifications for his line of work which his son brands dirty and disgraceful. The money lender points out that he’s only operating a business – he never attempts to hide his terms so customers know they will pay a heavy price for the loans, and thereafter the decision is their own. When his son points out how selfish a point of view that is and that all he’s doing is exploiting the desperation of vulnerable people, he’s told that he reads to many books and should learn to live in the “real world”. If Shimizu wants to criticise anything at all (even obliquely, this is 1937), it’s this “real world” thinking which legitimises the selfishness of those who seek to profit from the misfortune of others.

The same money lender has a somewhat strained relationship with his equally cynical wife. After she complains about his complaint about how much makeup she’s putting on “to go to a temple”, he tells her that his jealously proves he loves her. She’s a precious object that he’s afraid of losing to another man. To him all is about possession. Kanichi, who once thought himself so different is more or less the same as he refuses to think about why exactly Miya has made the decision she has, or even allow her the right to make that decision. Obviously broken hearted, he decides to abandon emotion all together as “you can’t trust the human heart.” He even attempts to enact the final terms of the usurious loans on the contracts of some of his university friends who, just as he was with Miya, are unable to understand how he could be so cruel to those he was once so close to. Even Tomiyama, who had hitherto looked after Miya as a husband should finally exclaims “I can’t love you without money” as if in a tacit acceptance of the fact that he essentially bought her, obtaining her duty and service but not, perhaps, her heart.

In contrast some of Shimizu’s other work he focusses much more on Kanichi’s moral meandering than on Miya’s suffering but she herself pays a heavy price throughout. In sacrificing her love for Kanichi and a chance at a self directed future in agreeing to the arranged marriage, Miya ultimately chose to familial duty over romantic feeling. Having grown up in comfort, a degree of fear may have also influenced her decision but the choice has broken her own heart just as much as Kanichi’s. Guilt and a regret threaten to frustrate her new married life even though she does her best to become the ideal wife. Miya searches for Kanichi to obtain his forgiveness but Kanichi is nowhere to be found.

The eventual reunion is one of chilling coldness and repressed emotions which causes only more pain for everyone involved. Neatly avoiding melodrama, Shimizu opts for a more realistic solution in which everyone realises the error of their ways. Kanichi perseveres in his desire for vengeance yet leaves feeling like “the stupidest man in the world”, pausing only to offer a few words of parting encouragement to Miya if stopping short of forgiveness (or an apology which she is most likely owed if only for the previous ten minutes of cruelty). The past remains the past and must be accepted as such, yet there is at least a glimmer of hope for Kanichi whose abortive plan of revenge may have reawakened within him the very thing he’d been trying to bury even if the future for Miya seems nowhere near as certain.