Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1935)

Okoto to SasukeYasujiro Shimazu had been a pioneer of the “shomin-geki” – naturalistic tales of ordinary working people in the contemporary era, but 1935’s Okoto and Sasuke (春琴抄 お琴と佐助, Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke) sees him step back from the modern world in adapting a soon to be classic novella by contemporary novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. Published in 1933 under the title Shunkinsho and set in late Meiji, Okoto and Sasuke is another in the author’s long series of dark erotic dramas which aim to explore the baser elements of the human heart while engaging in a kind of cultural soul searching. The first of many adaptations, Shimazu’s scales back on Tanizaki’s taste for the perverse as well as his wry sense of humour, spinning a tender tale of love which finally finds its home only in the shared darkness of two becoming one in self imposed exile from the visible world.

Okoto (Kinuyo Tanaka) has been blind since she was nine and, though her parents appear to dote on her, has a proud and imperious manner which sees her mistreat those who only seek her friendship. Fearing that, due to her disability, Okoto will never find a suitable husband, the family have decided to let her study the koto and shamisen (traditionally strong areas for the blind) so that she might be able to support herself and have some degree of accomplishment. Sasuke (Kokichi Takada), a young servant at the pharmacy run by Okoto’s father, began escorting Okoto to her classes for no especial reason but as he is one of the few who can cope with Okoto’s moods, and is one of the few Okoto seems to tolerate, he quickly became her personal companion.

Sasuke remains completely devoted to Okoto even when she treats him cruelly. So many areas of their relationship are an inversion of the customs of the time – Okoto is the mistress, while Sasuke is the servant, she is strong while he is weak, she is cruel and he is kind. She has all the power, and he has none but seems to revel in his degradation, obeying each and every one of Okoto’s commands and rarely minding even when she strikes him. Nevertheless, despite her outward contempt for him Okoto is also dependent of Sasuke – not only for the assistance he provides, but for the gentle touch of his hands and his willingness to place himself entirely under her authority in worshipful devotion.

The relationship between the pair is one of (seemingly) chaste sadomasochism in which both reject the “normal” romantic affectations of their time. Despite the obvious class difference, Okoto’s family are secretly hoping Okoto and Sasuke will someday marry – an idea floated with intense seriousness when it is discovered that Okoto has become pregnant though she refuses to name the father of the child, denying that her lover is Sasuke and vowing that she would find it “humiliating” to be married to a mere servant.

There is something, as uncomfortable as it is, which presents Okoto’s pride as a kind of rebellion born of her blindness, a rejection of the world which has rejected her as “imperfect” and which she literally cannot see. Despite her family’s reservations Okoto does acquire a suitor, but he is only interested in her precisely because of her blindness. A playboy, Ritaro has fetishised Okoto’s “difference” and sees her almost as a trophy, captivated by her intense beauty and only spurred on by her haughtiness. A friend of Sasuke’s, by contrast, hearing the rumour of Okoto’s pregnancy, expresses horror at the idea of a “disabled” woman with a child, avowing that society would never stand for such a thing, rejecting and salivating over the salacious rumour at the same time. Okoto will pay a heavy price for her violent rejection of Ritaro’s attempt to reduce her to a mere conquest, ironically allowing him to rob her of something, but eventually leading her towards the destiny which will bind her forever to her devoted servant, Sasuke.

Okoto, having suffered facial disfigurement, comes to realise the true nature of her feelings for Sasuke but cannot bear for him to see her ruined face, and he, dutifully, resolves to keep his eyes closed as if blind. Ultimately Sasuke opts for the traditionally female act of sacrifice in deciding to shift from his own world into that of Okoto. Together they cut themselves off from the outside world, electing to live in a world made for two alone in which none else may enter. Their act is one of intense individualism taken as a pair who have become one in their mutual devotion, rejoicing in a love born of darkness. Shimazu undercuts Tanizaki’s need for discomfort to present the final union of Okoto and Sasuke as the uncomplicated realisation of a love deep and true – concluding with an intertitle rather than succumb to the inherently melodramatic resolution of Tanizaki’s eroguro love story. Nevertheless through the powerful performance of Kinuyo Tanaka as the increasingly conflicted Okoto, Shimazu manages to capture something of the “pure” love of equals who find their place in a changing world only by removing themselves from it.

Victory Song (必勝歌, Masahiro Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tatsuo Osone, Koichi Takagi, Tetsuo Ichikawa, 1945)

vlcsnap-2017-08-01-00h21m20s082Completed in 1945, Victory Song (必勝歌, Hisshoka) is a strangely optimistic title for this full on propaganda effort intended to show how ordinary people were still working hard for the Emperor and refusing to read the writing on the wall. Like all propaganda films it is supposed to reinforce the views of the ruling regime, encourage conformity, and raise morale yet there are also tiny background hints of ongoing suffering which must be endured. Composed of 13 parts, Victory Song pictures the lives of ordinary people from all walks of life though all, of course, in some way connected with the military or the war effort more generally. Seven directors worked on the film – Masahiro Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tatsuo Osone, Koichi Takagi, and Tetsuo Ichikawa, and it appears to have been a speedy production, made for little money though starring some of the studio’s biggest stars in smallish roles.

The first scenes make plain the propagandistic intentions by starting in 660BC with a pledge of protection for the descendants of Amaterasu – ancestral mother goddess of Japan. Flash forward to 1941 and her sons are doing their best. Stock footage gives way to soldiers in the Asian jungle, taking a brief respite from the fighting to console each other with thoughts of home which is presumably where most of these small stories of resilience come from.

The soldiers appear to come from all backgrounds, the youngest of them seeming to be just a young boy whose strongest memory of home is his mother’s face. They chat cheerfully about their hometowns, never betraying any sense of fear, boredom or fatigue but the commander suddenly announces that they’re all “going home” until the next attack – taking a brief voyage of memory back to the motherland.

Within this framing sequence, the ordinary people of Japan go about their ordinary lives with cheerful forbearance. A young man cares for his parents after his older brother has given his life for the Emperor, serving on the home front by working himself so hard there’s a danger of going overboard and rendering himself out of action. His father argues that as long as everyone in Japan works as hard as they can, they can never be defeated. Community comes to the rescue again when a train gets stuck in the snow and the entire village gets out of bed to free it.

While the adults are giving it their all, the children are preparing to become fine subjects of the Emperor, training their minds and bodies to be of the most use whilst singing patriotic songs and performing military drills. Another segment finds the children praising their parents for their bravery, playing and roughhousing like any children would, but a hint of darkness emerges when a group of boys plays at war with their toy aeroplane. One little boy, Yuichi, has applied for the young pilots school without talking it over with his parents because he didn’t want them to be sad about him going away. His father, at least, is proud of him but upset at not being consulted. Practically measuring him up for the uniform, Yuichi’s father marvels at all the “young pilots” in the village – a chilling note seeing as none of these boys can be more than ten years old.

While the men go to war the women are at home waiting. Another persistent question relates to the fate of unmarried women – a positive motion for an arranged engagement is disrupted by the receipt of a draft card, prompting the male side to suggest they call the whole thing off. The woman, however, points out that every young man is in this position and she doesn’t see the point in expecting the worst. Life must go on, women must get married, and men must go to war. All of these things must be accepted without thinking too hard about it or there will be nothing for these gallant men to come home to.

The difficulties of wartime life extend to the fear and destruction of air raids, though a news report of the fire bombing of Tokyo reminds us that it could all have been much worse if it weren’t for the valiant efforts of the pilots and ground based defence forces keeping the threat from the skies at a minimum. Other reports detail dive bombing of hospital convoys while the wounded die happily knowing they’ve done their duty. Likewise the “special attack squad” prepare to meet their fates with stoicism and determination while their relatives are treated with especial esteem.

Interspersed with the vignettes and stock footage there are songs and dances bringing both entertainment and inspiration. The final message is one of resilience and unity, that Japan stands together to defend its ancient homeland in devotion to its Emperor, but then such a message would hardly be necessarily if the situation were brighter. Brief allusions are made to rationing, to the destruction and constant loss of life but these are all things which must be born for the glorious future. There is, however, much more stock put in remaining positive than there is in trying to deny the ongoing desperation. As propaganda films go, this one may backfire but does perhaps shine a light on the unspoken anxieties of ordinary people facing an extraordinary situation.

Final scenes including the “Victory Song” itself

Actress (映画女優, Kon Ichikawa, 1987)

actressKon Ichikawa was born in 1915, just four years later than the subject of his 1989 film Actress (映画女優, Eiga Joyu) which uses the pre-directorial career of one of Japanese cinema’s most respected actresses, Kinuyo Tanaka, to explore the development of Japanese cinema itself. Tanaka was born in poverty in 1909 and worked as a jobbing film actress before being “discovered” by Hiroshi Shimizu and becoming one of Shochiku’s most bankable stars. The script is co-written by Kaneto Shindo who was fairly close to the action as an assistant under Kenji Mizoguchi at Shochiku in the ‘40s before being drafted into the war. A commemorative exercise marking the tenth anniversary of Tanaka’s death from a brain tumour in 1977, Ichikawa’s film never quite escapes from the biopic straightjacket and only gives a superficial picture of its star but seems content to revel in the nostalgia of a, by then, forgotten golden age.

The film begins with the young Tanaka awaiting a visit from her mentor, Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe), whom her family are keen to thank for bringing them all to Tokyo away from their life of hardship. Although everyone is very happy for Tanaka’s success, there is shadow hanging over the party in the form of missing oldest brother Ryosuke who went on the run to avoid the draft and has not been heard of since.

Shimizu gives Tanaka (Sayuri Yoshinaga) her first roles at Shochiku where she becomes a contract player but is put out when another director, Heinosuke Gosho (Kiichi Nakai), wants to give her a leading role. Overruled by studio bosses, Shimizu becomes increasingly jealous of Tanaka’s career – a situation which is further complicated by the couple’s growing romantic entanglement which sees them living together in an unofficial marriage allowing Tanaka to continue acting. However, Shimizu continues to meddle in Tanaka’s professional life whilst also continuing his hard drinking, womanising playboy lifestyle. The couple eventually divorce but reunite from time to time on the film set.

Vowing never to marry again, the rest of Tanaka’s life is dedicated to acting and sees her working with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu (Shigemitsu Ogi) and later Mizoguchi (Bunta Sugawara). It is Tanaka’s professional and personal relationship with Mizoguchi which occupies the second half of the film. Judging by the first experience on the now lost Woman of Osaka in 1940, you wouldn’t think the two would ever wish to work together again though they eventually completed fifteen films together over the next fifteen years.

Mizoguchi’s process is completely different from any other Tanaka had worked with. Rather than meeting to rehearse and discuss the work, Mizoguchi abruptly sends her a lifetime’s supply of books about bunraku and changes the script that she has painstakingly committed to memory with on set rewrites communicated via a large blackboard he expects the actors to read from. Exasperated, Tanaka finally asks him for actual direction but he coldly states that she’s the actress and her acting is not part of his job description. Mizoguchi and Tanaka are very different people but each driven and ambitious so their frequent locking of horns produces a fiercely creative collaboration in which each was able to find worth even if it was frequently difficult.

The film ends around the time of Life of Oharu which would mark the final time the pair would work together. In terms of the film’s narrative, this unspoken development is foreshadowed by the idea that the two artists are heading in different directions but in the real world the reasons are a little less clear. Tanaka became the second woman to direct a feature film with Love Letters in 1953 which was even featured at Cannes, but for reasons unknown Mizoguchi attempted to block her access to the Director’s Guild of Japan, effectively ending both their friendship and any professional relationship. Ironically enough, Actress seems to imply that Tanaka’s desire to direct may have been inspired by Mizoguchi and his all powerful on set status prompting her to wonder how he does it, and, perhaps how she could do it too.

Ichikawa weaves the history of Japan through its cinema into the narrative to recount the changing tastes of the eras as naturalism came in and out of fashion and Japanese films began to experience international as well as domestic acclaim. Skipping huge portions of time to focus on the two directors – Shimizu and Mizoguchi, Ichikawa avoids mentioning Tanaka’s post-war visit to America which had a profound impact on her later career, not only in what she learned there but also in the extremely hostile reception she received on returning home. The main takeaway from his depiction of Tanaka is a woman ahead of her time, independent and headstrong, willing to work hard to achieve the things she wanted to achieve even if flying in the face of social convention though it makes no particular judgement on her character other than in her success as an actress.

Taking on the conceit of being a film about film, Ichikawa’s sets are theatrical, creating a deliberately artificial, half unreal world. This also extends into the scriptwriting which is extremely talky and more like a stage play than film, offering pointed, long stretches of monologuing which are already far away from the more naturalistic approach of early talking cinema. Characters have improbable, exposition filled conversations in which they each tell each other things they already know for the audience’s benefit – an effect which enhances the overall theatricality, but does draw attention to itself and eventually becomes wearing. Ichikawa’s picture of Tanaka is one of steely determination and of a woman ahead of her time, but even if Actress proves less than enlightening regarding its subject it does help to shed some light on both classic Japanese cinema and that of the late 1980s.

Original trailer (traditional Chinese subs only)