Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Japanese golden age cinema is famed for its centring of female stories, but while it’s true that many of Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas revolve around a young woman’s feelings towards marriage, the perspective is often surprisingly male. Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Higanbana), his first film in colour, marks something of a change in direction in its spirited defence of the young, but at heart is still a story as much about impending old age, the responsibilities of fatherhood, and changing times as it is about contemporary family dynamics or female agency. 

The father in question, Hirayama (Shin Saburi), is a high ranking executive with two daughters. The older, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), is working at another company, and the younger, Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), is still in school. Marriage is on his mind because he’s just attended the wedding of an old school friend’s daughter at which he gave a speech, with his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) sitting awkwardly next to him, describing the arranged marriage he had with her as “pragmatic, routine” while he envies the young couple’s “fortunate opportunity” to indulge in romance. He and Kiyoko idly discuss the idea of Setsuko’s marriage, it seems as if there is a promising match on the horizon, with Hirayama conflicted while Kiyoko is very much in favour of doing things the traditional way. She’s already mentioned it to her daughter, but all she does is smile demurely which seems to provoke different interpretations from each of the parents. 

While thinking about all of that, Hirayama receives a visit from an old friend who was a notable absence at the wedding asking him to check up on his daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga) who ran away from home two months ago to live with a musician after he tried to veto her intention to marry without consulting him. Hirayama is sympathetic, perhaps thinking his friend has acted foolishly and pushed his daughter away. After visiting the bar where she works, he comes to the conclusion that as long as she’s happy with her choice then everyone else should be too. That all goes out the window, however, when a young man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), visits him unexpectedly at work and asks for permission to marry Setsuko. Hirayama quite rudely asks him to leave and then irritatedly talks the matter over with Setsuko before petulantly refusing his consent, not because he objects to Taniguchi, but because he is hurt on emotional level that she hadn’t talked to him about this first (not least so that they stop worrying about arranging a marriage) while resentful that she’s gone behind his back and undercut his patriarchal authority. 

In addition to the changing nature of family dynamics, Hirayama is perhaps conscious of his advancing age, feeling himself increasingly obsolescent and therefore additionally wounded by this assault on his authority as a father. The generation gap, however, is all too present. Both Setsuko and Fumiko feel as if they simply cannot talk to their parents because they wouldn’t listen and will never understand. Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto), the daughter of another friend, feels something similar in her exasperation with her well-meaning single mother who keeps hatching plans to set her up with various men she isn’t interested in. Intellectually, Hirayama sides with the young, envying them their freedoms and advising Yukiko firstly not to marry at all, and then encouraging her desire to resist arranged marriages despite trying to foist them on his own daughters. 

Even Kiyoko eventually describes her husband’s continuing petulance as “inconsistent”. It seems obvious that Kiyoko is siding with her daughter, immediately taking a liking to Taniguchi who politely brought her home after she stormed out following an argument with her father, but she continues to behave as a “good wife” should, politely minding her husband while gently hoping that he will eventually come round. Only once pushed does she try to explain to him, again politely, that he’s being selfish and unreasonable, but he continues on in resentment while causing his daughter emotional pain simply for trying to find her own happiness rather letting him decide for her. Kiyoko is afraid that if it carries on like this, then Setsuko will, like Fumiko, eventually leave and they’ll lose her completely, something which Hirayama either hasn’t fully considered or is actively encouraging through his petulance. 

In the end the conclusion he comes to is that the parents will eventually have to give way or risk losing their children entirely. He tells both Fumiko and Yukiko that all parents want is for their children to be happy and so nothing else matters, but struggles to put his advice into practice when it comes to his own daughter. Like pretty much everyone in an Ozu film, Hirayama is a good, kind person, even if one struggling against himself as he contemplates a loss of authority, a change in standing, and the difficulty of dealing with complex emotions as a man in a patriarchal society. Predictably, it’s women who essentially bully him into making better decisions, Yukiko “interfering” in the nicest of ways, while his wife makes it clear that though she thinks he’s wrong she will continue to stand by him if only in the hope he will eventually see the light. “Life is absurd, we’re not all perfect” he admits, only later realising how his stubborn foolishness may have caused unnecessary suffering to those he loves the most.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

It’s lonely at the top. Perhaps surprisingly, Japan’s depression-era cinema had considerable space for lamenting the complicated position of the young master and, as Hiroshi Shimizu’s The Boss’ Son at College would do the following year, Ozu’s Where Now are the Dreams of Youth (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Seishun no Yume Ima Izuko) follows a young man of privilege realising that inequality is bad for friendship and no matter how much you try to manipulate an inherently unfair system for the good of those you love it is the system itself which will always stand between you. 

Ozu begins, however, in familiar territory continuing in the vein of student comedy which was proving such a big hit for home studio Shochiku and in fact reusing a few gags from his previous films in the genre such as the guys’ persistent attempts to cheat on their exams. The opening sequence in which three of the four friends goof off rehearsing a cheerleading routine neatly sets up the already existing divisions between them as Saiki (Tatsuo Saito), the gang’s outlier, hovers on the sidelines attempting to study explaining to a young woman the guys know from the bakery, Shige (Kinuyo Tanaka), that he has only his mother and cannot afford to spend his time messing around. Despite that, however, we’re also told that Saiki is a hopeless case forever falling his exams and regarded as essentially feckless. 

The hero, Tetsuo (Ureo Egawa), is the son of a company president and even if he doesn’t notice it the guys are already deferring to him as a kind of leader though they are all, in one sense, still “equals” as students at the same university taking the same classes. They all wear the same universal student uniform and drink in the same cafe, though they perhaps have different fears and anxieties for their futures at this difficult economic moment. The friendship is suddenly disrupted by the unexpected death of Tetsuo’s father which necessitates his leaving university to take over the family firm, though it’s also clear that he is not quite in charge and his conservative uncle is in fact running the show. 

Tetsuo’s new status as a company president, now dressed in an expensive tailored business suit, forever sets him apart from his friends who eventually come to him for help on being unable to find jobs in the midst of an economic depression. He decides to use his privilege to help them but in an underhanded way, insisting they sit the company exam but giving them the answer sheet beforehand just like in their school days helping each other to cheat. Nevertheless, he fails to realise that you can’t be both friend and boss and it hurts him that they are now polite and deferent in his presence. Gone is their old camaraderie and foolishness, fear and dependency gradually erode their friendship. 

Meanwhile, Tetsuo has continued to carry a torch for Shige but again has failed to realise that they now live in different worlds. His uncle keeps trying to arrange suitable marriages for him which he delights in frustrating with childish pranks. Now settled in his professional life he tries to abide by a college era bro code in asking for the guys’ permission to ask for Shige’s hand, knowing that they had all taken a liking to her. He places himself on their level but only superficially, acting with a degree of self-confident entitlement which assumes firstly that the others will defer to him and back off, and that Shige is his for the asking. What hurts him most is that none of the guys, who must all know, were brave enough to tell him that Saiki and Shige are already engaged. Fearful for his job, Saiki would have sacrificed the woman he loves, essentially traded her for economic stability. Finding out from Saiki’s mother (Choko Iida), Tetsuo confronts Shige who tells him that she agreed to marry Saiki out of pity and despair after growing weary of waiting for him believing that a company president would never marry a woman like her. 

Tetsuo surrenders his love on the altar of friendship. Despite confirming their love for each other, he and Shige are separated by the great wall of social class in a hierarchal society along with the economic pressures of an ongoing depression. What Tetsuo chooses to save is his male friendship, striking Saiki, who does not fight back, for his moral cowardice in debasing himself by allowing those with power and privilege to rob him of his rights and freedoms. The guys sort things out with a fist fight, restoring an artificial “equality” that provokes a “happy” ending despite the fact that nothing has really changed. Tetsuo has to say goodbye to the dreams of youth in acceptance of the disappointments of adulthood but tries to salvage something as he moves forward in preserving what he can of cross-class friendship as bulwark against the inequalities of his age.


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

Woman of Tokyo (東京の女, Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Most closely associated with his family dramas, the films of Yasujiro Ozu while often deeply moving are generally safe spaces filled with warmth and love. He was never, however, afraid to explore the darkness of his society as the uncharacteristically bleak silent Woman of Tokyo (東京の女, Tokyo no Onna) makes plain. A tale of disintegrating families, Ozu substitutes a loyal sister for a self sacrificing mother but once again places her at the mercy of a conservative society which refuses to accept the nature of the sacrifice she has chosen to make on its behalf. 

The heroine, Chikako (Yoshiko Okada), is better off than most during these years of depression in that she has a steady full-time job as a typist with which she is able to support her younger brother, Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa), who is a student. Somewhat unusually, Ozu shows us a fairly progressive working environment in which Chikako is one of many women working alongside men in an open plan office which is arranged in a far less stressful manner than the one we later observe in the American film which Ryoichi and his girlfriend Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka) see at the cinema (If I Had a Million, 1932, the segment directed by Ernst Lubitsch, “The Clerk”) in which the desks are laid out in regimented style and staffed entirely by identically dressed men.  

In any case, the job apparently does not quite pay enough to cover Ryoichi’s fees and so Chikako has taken on a part-time gig assisting a professor with translation at his home in the evenings, or so she said. Unbeknownst to her, a policeman turns up at her office and asks to see her attendance records. Again surprisingly, Chikako’s boss is calm and supportive, telling the policeman she’s a model employee of four years’ standing and obviously confused as to how she could be the subject of any criminal investigation. The policeman does not explain, shutting the interview down as soon as the boss motions to ask Chikako about the mysterious professor presumably not wanting her to know she is under investigation. 

Rumours, however, will start and it is those rumours more than the truth of them which will prove the most fatal. Harue’s brother (Shinyo Nara) is a policeman and he’s heard that Chikako has been moonlighting as a bar girl and engaging in sex work. Harue decides to put the matter to her boyfriend, but he is immediately offended, brought to tears by anger, and throws Harue out for slandering his sister. The issue is that, as a woman and most particularly as a sister in place of a mother, Chikako is expected to sacrifice herself on her brother’s behalf. Her career, and implicitly the reason she is not yet married, is not for her personal fulfilment or financial security but only for her brother’s future. She has given up everything for him, and now apparently has also surrendered her body yet he rejects and shames her for it. He does not thank her, nor does he feel guilt for being the cause of her supposed degradation but again foregrounds his own suffering as the brother of a fallen woman. 

Harue, by contrast, is presented as a the soul of properness, not unkind but disapproving. In a difficult conversation with Chikako, she admits it’s not the right thing to say but immediately pities Ryoichi rather than sympathising with another woman who has found herself making difficult choices solely on his behalf. Ryoichi rejects her suffering and sees only the shame. Yet Chikako is not ashamed. She does not seem unhappy with her choices and is defiant in the face of censure. She hoped that Ryoichi would one day understand, but the decision he makes is cruel and selfish, ruining all her hope and rendering her long years of suffering void. She resents his cowardice in being unable to face and accept the truth in the depth of her love for him. 

In this instance, the family fails but only because of an oppressive social structure that is inherently unequal and refuses to accept either female agency or sacrifice. Chikako lives in a world of film noir despair, haunted by ominous shadows – policemen’s swords, gloves against the shoji, nooses in shadows on the walls, a boiling kettle giving way to a pillow shot of smoke pouring from a chimney in funereal foreshadowing that forever traps her in impossibility. Frustrated, Ryoichi tries to reassert his manhood through physical violence but remains impotent, dependent on his sister but resenting her for shaming him in transgressing against an oppressive society. Meanwhile, Chikako is one of many women of Tokyo enduring the same old tragedies, her suffering barely registers. Reporters leave her door giggling after concluding there’s nothing to see here before taking to the streets in search of greater scandal in a readily devolving city filled with only emptiness and despair. 


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

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.


Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

1951’s Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Ginza Kesho) is often said to mark a kind of rebirth in the career of director Mikio Naruse whose output in the 1940s was perhaps unfairly denigrated not least by Naruse himself. As in much of his golden age work and in anticipation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza’s heroine is a resilient bar hostess whose brief hopes of escape through romance are doomed to failure, but it’s also, like the slightly later Tokyo Profile (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953) and Tales of Ginza (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) an ode to the upscale district and all the defeated hopes of its illusionary glitz and glamour. 

Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), the heroine, is a single-mother approaching middle age and working as a hostess in a Ginza bar. Her landlady who runs a nagauta school on the ground floor and constantly complains about her feckless though goodnatured unemployed husband seems to think she could do better, pointing out that she is an educated woman who seems slightly out of place in the rundown backstreets of this otherwise aspirational area. Even for educated women, however, there may not be many other opportunities in the straitened and socially conservative post-war economy especially for those without connections, and Yukiko also needs to provide for her young son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo), born out of wedlock after an affair with a customer with whom she had fallen in love but abandoned her when she became pregnant. 

As a slightly older woman who has been working at the Bel Ami bar for many years, seemingly from war to occupation, Yukiko is both looked up to by the younger women and resented as a stern older sister who does not approve of the way some of them ply their trade. She’s taken one, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who often babysits for her, under her wing, cautioning her against making the same mistakes that she once made in taking the kinds of men that come into the bar at their word. “Men are all animals” she warns her, supporting her desire not to give in to her parents’ attempts to arrange for her not a marriage but a “position” as a mistress. Unlike Yukiko, Kyoko still has hope of leaving the Ginza bar world behind to become a respectable wife even if those hopes are fading with the relative unlikelihood of finding a “good” man with a salary good enough to support a wife who is not already married and can be understanding of her bar girl past. 

The bar world may be on the fringes of the sex trade, but the bar girls are not necessarily sex workers even if some of the younger women are clearly engaging in the kinds of casual sex work of which Yukiko clearly disapproves even while not against consensual romantic liaisons. For her own part, she finds herself in the awkward situation of a continuing non-relationship with a failed businessman, Fujimura (Masao Mishima), who was fairly wealthy during the war but apparently no longer. Yukiko attributes this to him being in someway too good to prosper, though having money in the war which disappeared afterwards perhaps implies the opposite. She does not love him and seems to find his presence a little irritating, but feels indebted because he stood by her when she was pregnant and alone. In any case, he has a wife (whom he apparently resents) and children (whom he claims to adore) and so she feels at best conflicted, especially as the tables have turned and it’s him now constantly asking her for money. Money is not something Yukiko has a lot of, but she isn’t mean and often consents to losing it with a resigned shrug as she does by taking on Kyoko’s bar debt after a customer runs out on the bill and then tricks Yukiko into buying more drinks while waiting for a “friend” to arrive. 

Men, it seems, will always be predatory and unreliable. On hearing from her boss and longtime friend that the bar is in trouble and may have to close, Yukiko ends up acting on an introduction from an acquaintance, Shizue (Ranko Hanai), to meet a “stingy” industrialist who had expressed an interest in her. Shizue has escaped the bar world by becoming a wealthy man’s mistress and with it has claimed a kind of independence. He splits his time between Tokyo and Osaka, leaving her free to do whatever she likes (including meeting other men) for most of her time with none of the strings that go with being a wife. Yukiko is perhaps too “pure” for that kind of arrangement, hinting at the Ginza paradox that only those who learn to accept a certain level of complicity can ever truly be happy there. She agrees to meet Kanno (Eijiro Tono), the businessman, in order to ask him to “invest” in the bar, suggesting they talk things over in a coffeeshop while he tries to pull her into various shady establishments before pushing her into a warehouse and attempting to rape her to get his money’s worth. Yukiko escapes and resolves not to see him again. After all, the point of getting the money to keep the bar open was precisely to avoid having to make arrangements with men like Kanno. 

It’s Shizue, however, who later gives her a last shot at escape when she introduces her to her “true love”, Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), making a brief trip into the city. Shizue can’t entertain him herself because her patron is in town and so entrusts him to Yukiko with the strict instruction not to try it on. Despite herself, however, Yukiko becomes fond of him, reassuming something of a past persona in engaging in intellectual conversation, once again an educated, middle-class woman rather than a bar hostess used to telling men what they want to hear. She has been warned, however, that Ishikawa hates anything “low culture” which is why Shizue has told him they are both war widows and discovers that he has a strong dislike for Ginza which sees him longing for the wholesome charms of home. 

The crisis occurs when Yukiko has to break a promise to Haruo to take him to the zoo in order to look after Ishikawa, causing him to go temporarily missing when he wanders off on his own roaming all over the endless construction site of the contemporary city standing in for the makeshift, in-progress reconstruction of the post-war society. She perhaps feels she’s being punished for choosing to disappoint her son in order to pursue a dream of romantic escape she might also feel is somehow undeserved, but pays in quite a different way after accidentally setting Ishikawa up with Kyoko whom she introduced as her “sister”. Originally angry and resentful, proclaiming herself disappointed with Kyoko in assuming she is the same as the other young women at the bar, Yukiko’s good nature eventually wins out as she realises that Kyoko and Ishikawa seem to have fallen in love in a single night. She has told him everything, and he apparently wants to marry her anyway. Kyoko, at least, is getting out, and Yukiko can be happy about that while privately internalising defeat. Acknowledging that Haruo is the only one on whom she can depend, she resolves to live on as a mother only, trapped in the deceptive diminishing returns of a Ginza bar life even while knowing it has increasingly little place for her.  


The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Heinosuke Gosho, 1933)

“Happiness is waiting for you” the melancholy heroine of The Dancing Girl of Izu (恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子, Koi no Hana Saku Izu no Odoriko) is told by a man who truly loves her, though with his words all her hopes are dashed. Shot on location, Heinosuke Gosho’s 1933 silent is the first of several adaptations of the well-known Yasunari Kawabata story from 1926 and takes a number of liberties with the source material which are partly in keeping with the demands of contemporary cinema and partly an attempt to anchor it more firmly to the increasingly chaotic world of 1933 beset with both economic and political instability thanks to the global depression and Japan’s imperialist ambitions. The price of “happiness” it seems may be love, but perhaps stability as is much as you can ask for in an infinitely unstable world. 

Nominally speaking, the hero of this tale is a young student, Mizuhara (Den Ohinata), through whose eyes we view the transitory nature of young love and the rigidity of a society which will in the end not permit its fulfilment. The “dancing girl” however is our primary focus. Kaoru (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the orphaned younger sister of Eikichi (Tokuji Kobayashi) who inherited a literal goldmine but squandered his inheritance and forced the whole family on the road to earn their keep as travelling players. Such people occupy a kind of underclass, victims of a prejudice against those who have no fixed abode and cannot easily be identified through association with a place or people. Kaoru admits that though she has learned to bear her way of life because at least she’s with her family, signs such as the one they find in a ditch to the effect that beggars and itinerant actors are not welcome in the town fill her with despair. 

Mizuhara meets the actors when they have been unfairly accused of dumping the sign out of frustration (a child later vindicates them after confirming that it was a wandering priest who passed through shortly before). He wades into the fray to urge the angry farmers to exercise a little more patience and ends up agreeing to travel with the family to their next destination as he is himself engaged in a kind of holiday wandering around the picturesque countryside of the Izu peninsula (a popular activity for well to do students of the time). Unbeknownst to him they are already connected by mutual acquaintances in that a friend of Mizuhara’s, Ryuichi (Ryoichi Takeuchi), from the same university also lives in this town and is the son of the man, Zenbei (Arai Atsushi), who bought the goldmine from Eikichi after he went bankrupt. 

The economic subplot concerns an amoral mining engineer, Kubota (Reikichi Kawamura), who apparently has a reputation as a “slave driver” and was responsible for starting the mine which Eikichi’s father owned, the implication being that it failed because of his exploitative business practices and has flourished under Zenbei’s more compassionate ownership in contrast to the picture Kubota is about to paint of him. Having apparently failed at several other endeavours, Kubota has sworn off mines but has convinced himself that he is “owed” something seeing as Zenbei’s mine is now a success and he was the one who found it. He tries to get something out of Ryuichi, but he is unconvinced and eventually offended, accusing of Kubota of blackmail when he insinuates that there was something improper about his buying the mine from Eikichi for much less than it was worth. 

The film’s opening sequence which set up a subplot never resolved about a runaway geisha, however, showed us that Zenbei is as his name suggests a kindhearted man. He reported the geisha’s disappearance to the police not because she took off without clearing her debts but because he was worried for her safety, believing she may have been tricked into running off with an unscrupulous client. Kubota plants the seeds of resentment by convincing Eikichi that he was cheated out of the mine and is owed compensation. Eikichi, feeling humiliated, is determined to “negotiate”, but Zenbei tells him to give them his sister. 

As will be revealed later, Zenbei’s intentions are honourable and he has no thought of replacing the geisha who ran away with Kaoru but wants to take her into his household as an adopted daughter. Eikichi, however, misunderstands but is prepared to sell his sister in order to pursue a pointless revenge against Zenbei by getting money to buy another mine and thereby become even richer. Mizuhara berated him for even considering the idea of trading his sister for money, but in the end even Eikichi only sees her as capital in his rage-fuelled desire to avenge his wounded male pride and sense of impotence. He failed as head of household in losing the family fortune and now has no intention of protecting his sister from the vagaries of the world. 

Mizuhara once again intervenes and learns the truth from Zenbei, that he had been a friend of Eikichi’s father’s and has always been trying to look out for them but has recently lost patience with Eikichi who has already borrowed a lot of money from him. Zenbei is minded towards tough love, convinced his well-meaning attempts to help have only enabled Eikichi’s financial fecklessness. He doesn’t see why Kaoru should pay for his mistakes and has been putting some of the proceeds from the mine into a savings account in her name, hoping also that she may one day marry his son Ryuichi. Mizuhara is at once crushed by the painful goodness he sees in front of him, knowing that his love for Kaoru is now not only impossible but perhaps selfish. All he can do for her now is get out of the way so that she can be saved from the harsh life of an itinerant player, restored to her previous class status, and given the most elusive of all prizes in this chaotic age, stability. 

Zenbei’s plan for Kaoru is in itself a kind of miracle, the best she could ever hope for, but it’s also a minor tragedy in that it both robs her of any kind of agency to make her own choices and destroys the possibility of a romantic future with Mizuhara. To accept everyday comfort and safety, she must resign herself to giving up her love. Mizuhara asks her to do just that in an altruistic act of selflessness which recognises that without money he is powerless to help her. He’s not the one she loves (and we have no idea how he might feel about it), but Ryuichi seems to be a good and kind man, like his father Zenbei who is perhaps the face of compassionate, paternalist capitalism. The world is too chaotic for romance, but there is kindness enough if you’re lucky enough to find it, and if stability is all there is perhaps sorrow is easier to bear than hunger. 


Phoenix (不死鳥, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1947)

“Life is about facing your loneliness” according to the heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Phoenix (不死鳥, Fushicho), a woman who’s known her share of suffering but has learned to endure. She knows not only war widows are lonely, and she’s not the only war widow, so she’s doing her best to be as happy as one can be under the circumstances. As much about its nation’s rebirth from the ashes, Phoenix is also quietly subversive in its critique of outdated social conventions and enthusiasm for a woman’s right to seek her independence rather than rely on the support of the traditional family. 

In 1947, Sayoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a much loved daughter-in-law and mother to Ken, who is about to celebrate his fourth birthday. She takes care of the household and looks after the numerous Yasaka siblings while putting up with her sometimes grumpy father-in-law (Isamu Kosugi) who harshly scolds little Ken when he throws a stone through the side window but feels guilty about it afterwards and vows to come home with sweets to make it up to him. Life with the Yasakas is peaceful and happy, though the present crisis, which isn’t really a crisis so much as a matter for consideration, is the potential marriage of younger son Yuji (Akira Yamanouchi) who has been wanting to marry his girlfriend Yoko but had been worried both that his parents would object to him trying to choose his own bride without their input, and that bringing another young woman into the house as a new wife might be insensitive, leaving Sayoko feeling sad and unwelcome. 

Yuji’s mother tells him that he doesn’t need to worry on either point, she and his father have long been in favour of the marriage which hints at something of a sea change in contemporary social attitudes. In Sayoko’s flashbacks to her early courtship, we see Shinichi (Keiji Sada), her later husband, bring her to his family home with the intention of introducing her to his parents as his future bride, but his father won’t even see her, loudly shouting that Shinichi should immediately ask her to leave. His objections are largely feudal in nature, Shinichi is the oldest son and his marriage is therefore of great importance to the family name. Not only does he not know anything about Sayoko, whom he basically calls a loose woman for daring to date while in high school, but he deeply resents that Shinichi has gone behind his back, defied his authority, and tried to arrange his own marriage without his father’s input. 

Despite the clear intention of the pair to continue their association with or without his consent, Mr. Yasaka continues to object. Shinichi insists that “nothing can separate us” despite knowing that he has already enlisted for the army and will shortly be leaving for the war. Sayoko holds the line, resisting even when her father dies and pushy relatives try to railroad her into an arranged marriage which will benefit them financially, and supporting her younger brother who is spared the war but only because he is already in the later stages of incurable TB.

Mr. Yasaka’s objections gain more weight with the war’s intensity. With her brother on his deathbed, he turns up to ask Sayoko not to see Shinichi on his brief leave before he’s shipped abroad during which they plan to get married because he thinks it’s irresponsible for his son to marry a woman knowing there is a good chance he will leave her a widow. Overwhelmed by the scale of her tragedies, Sayoko has had enough, rounding on Mr. Yasaka and letting him know that his concerns are moot because every healthy young man is in the same position and if he’d only given up his stubborn insistence that Shinichi has wronged him by undercutting his authority and given his consent to their marriage at any point during the last six years he wouldn’t have had to come here on this day with her brother dying in the next room to tell her that she shouldn’t marry the man she loves because her marriage is somehow his decision to make. 

Mr. Yasaka is clearly moved by Sayoko’s distress, moving to comfort her but then withdrawing and getting up to leave without saying anything. Petitioned again by Sayoko’s faithful housekeeper, he catches sight of the blooming flowers Sayoko has grown in adversity and is minded to reconsider. Several years later we can see that Mr. Yasaka has grown fond of Sayoko and his grandson even if he has a bit of temper, while she is very happy as a member of their family and not at all minded to remarry despite their desire for her to lead a fulfilling life. That is, as she tells Yuji encouraging him not to feel bashful about his bride, not because of a romantic notion of faithfulness or being hung up on old memories, but for the practical reason that she has nowhere else to go, or at least she is certain there is nowhere where she would be so happy. Later, however, she hopes to open a shop of her own and strive for her independence together with her son rather than remaining dependent on her husband’s family or marrying again for practical rather than emotional reasons.

Shinichi had been fond of talking about the life they’d lead once the war was over, that they’d only be apart for a few years and then never again, but the war stole their future from them as it did for so many other young people whom the film was doubtless intended to comfort. Nevertheless, Sayoko is forever telling people how happy she is. Mr. Yasaka seems to have relented, is going to let his younger son marry a woman of his choosing, and the younger siblings are all bright and cheerful. The future looks rosy, and Sayoko is going to do her best to enjoy it, striving for independence in a now less restrictive society. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Eternal Rainbow (この天の虹, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

Eternal rainbow poster 1Famously, towards the end of the war, Keisuke Kinoshita got himself into trouble with a dialogue free scene of a mother’s distress as she sent away the son she’d so carefully raised “for the emperor” towards an uncertain future in the midst of hundred of other, identically dressed faceless boys. Army might have showcased the director’s propensity for resistance, but one could also argue that there was just as much propagandistic intent in the post-war films as their had been in the militarist era even if the messages they were selling were often more palatable. 1958’s The Eternal Rainbow (この天の虹, Kono Ten no Niji) is a case in point. A portrait so positive one wonders if it was sponsored by Yahata Steel, The Eternal Rainbow is nevertheless conflicted in its presentation of defeated post-war hope, exploitation, and growing social inequality even as it praises its factory city as a utopian vision of happy industry and fierce potential.

A lengthy opening sequence featuring voice over narration recounts the history of the Yahata Steel Works which began operations in 1901 in Northern Kyushu and now employs thousands of people, many of whom live nearby in the ever expanding company dorms the newer models of which feature bright and colourful modern designs in contrast to the depressing grey prefab of the traditional workers’ homes. Gradually we are introduced to our heroes – chief among them Mr. Suda (Yusuke Kawazu), a young man from the country who saw a factory job as his over the rainbow but is rapidly becoming disillusioned with its dubious gains. Rather than the company dorms, Suda rooms with the foreman, Kageyama (Chishu Ryu), and his wife Fumi (Kinuyo Tanaka) whose young son Minoru (Kazuya Kosaka) didn’t qualify for a factory job on account of his small frame and his been unable to stick at anything in the precarious post-war economy. Meanwhile, Suda has made friends with an older worker, Sagara (Teiji Takahashi), who has fallen for a secretary, Chie (Yoshiko Kuga), but her family are dead against her marrying a factory worker while she is also in a relationship with a college educated engineer, Machimura (Takahiro Tamura), but is beginning to doubt the seriousness of his intentions.

The drama begins when Sagara employs Kageyama to act as a go-between in a formal proposal of marriage to Chie’s parents, the Obitas. Kageyama didn’t really want to be a go-between because it’s gone badly for him before and he thinks this one is a non-starter too – women around here have their sights set on office workers, no one in the arranged marriage market is looking to marry someone on the shop floor. The Obitas feel much the same. Mrs. Obita is keen for Chie to marry up and is somewhat offended by the proposal, granting it only the customary consideration time to not seem rude in turning it down flat. Sagara is stoic about the matter, but the abruptness of the rejection greatly offends Suda who cannot stand for the Obitas snobbish put down of working people.

Herein lies the central conflict. Suda was a country boy who’d been sold an impossible dream. He believed that a job in the factory, for which he had to sit an exam and has been chosen out of thousands of other hopefuls, was his ticket out of rural poverty. Now that he’s working there he realises he is little more than a wage slave, working long hours for almost nothing with the only goal of his life being to earn enough to feed a family with a little (very little) left over for his old age. Minoru, the Kageyamas’ son, feels much the same and has already turned cynical and desperate. He can’t abide his father’s work ethic and wants more out of life than there perhaps is for it to give him. Suda repeatedly asks how people can learn to be happy in this sort of life, wondering if those that claim to be have simply given up their hopes and aspirations in resignation. When Minoru decides not to go to Tokyo it ought to be a victory, but then perhaps it is more that he has simply accepted that there is no hope there either.

Nevertheless, the depiction of Yahata as a place to work is ridiculously positive even as Kinoshita undercuts it with the disillusionment of both Suda and Sagara. A factory city, Yahata is characterised as a cornerstone of the burgeoning post-war economy, literally making the rails on which the new Japan will run. The works provides affordable accommodation for families, guaranteed employment, insurance, a “self service” supermarket right on site, social clubs, cultural activities, and festivals. They even get a large scale show from Tokyo every year.

Even so, an immense and seemingly unbridgeable gap exists between the steelworkers and the company men. Mrs. Obita might seem self serving and mercenary, but she’s had a hard life and perhaps it’s only natural that wants better for her daughter. Suda is angry to think a good man like Sagara who might be a bit old fashioned and unsophisticated but has taken the trouble to do things the “proper” way would be dismissed out of hand simply out of snobbery. His attitude is, however, somewhat problematic in that he begins bothering Chie to find out her reasons for declining the proposal, refusing to recognise that she doesn’t need to offer any reason besides her own will. Chie, meanwhile, is conflicted. A proposal of marriage from a man she doesn’t even really know is not something she was minded to consider in any case, but her feelings for Machimura are tested once she becomes aware that he is not quite in earnest and may have been messing around with his landlady while enjoying the attention he receives as an eligible bachelor around town.

Machimura, like Suda, Sagara, and Minoru, is somewhat listless and apathetic even if for the opposite reason in that his life is far too easy and he hasn’t had to make a lot of concrete decisions about his future. Chie doesn’t deny that his college education and urban sophistication are part of the reason she was attracted to him, but as she later tries to explain to Suda, she wasn’t simply angling to marry up – she just fell in love with someone who happened to be of a higher social class which isn’t the same as looking down on working people. She has a right to her feelings whatever political label an increasingly resentful Suda might like to put on them. Even so, if she had been trying to marry up who could really blame her for that? In a society in which women are still entirely dependent on a man, being largely prevented from pursuing a career in their own right, a marriage is effectively a job for life. Shouldn’t she pick the offer with the best benefits, just as Suda did when he chose to leave the country for a factory job?

Progressive factories are often presented as an ideal solution the problem of post-war poverty, but here Kinoshita does not seem so sure. Despite the emphatic tone of the infrequent voice over and the central messages that factory jobs are good jobs and looking down on manual work nothing more than snobbery, Suda and Sagara remain conflicted. This work is dangerous, pays little, and offers nothing more than false promise. If the vast cities like Yahata are the engines repowering the economic growth of a still straitened Japan, what will be the end result? Metropolis made flesh, the “eternal rainbow” is exposed as a self serving lie but what, Suda might ask, else is there for men like him in a society like this?


Original trailer (no subtitles)