Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Wild Geese (雁, AKA The Mistress, Shiro Toyoda, 1953)

(C) Daiei, 1953In the extreme turbulence of the immediate post-war period, it’s not surprising that Japan looked back to the last time it was confronted with such confusion and upheaval for clues as to how to move forward from its current state of shocked inertia. The heroine of Shiro Toyoda’s adaptation of the Ogai Mori novel, Wild Geese (雁, Gan, AKA The Mistress), finds herself at a similar crossroads to the women of the 1950s, caught between tradition and modernity as they embrace the new freedoms but remain constrained by a conservative society. Toyoda, well known for his adaptations of great literature, makes a few key changes to Mori’s novel in effect placing a Showa era heroine in a recognisably “Meiji” world.

The Japan of the 1880s is one of extreme contrast and rapidly unfolding modernity. Having finally opened its doors to the outside world, the nation is in a big hurry to “catch up” to those it sees as its equals on the world stage. Consequently, Western thoughts and values are flooding into the country, bringing both good and ill. Arranged marriages are still common and Otama (Hideko Takamine) has been married once but the marriage has failed – she was deceived, the man she married already had a wife and child. Still, having lived with a man as his wife, Otama is considered “damaged” goods and will find it difficult to make a good match in the future (especially given the whiff of scandal from being involved in an illegitimate marriage with a bigamist).

When a matchmaker (Choko Iida) arrives with a potential husband it proves hard to turn down but the matchmaker is not quite on the level. Suezo (Eijiro Tono), she says, is a recently widowed man with a young child who is in need of a new wife but cannot marry again immediately for propriety’s sake. Otama will be his mistress and then in due course his wife. However, the matchmaker is an unscrupulous woman who has spun Otama a yarn in the hope of getting her debt written off by getting the shady loanshark she owes money to a pretty young woman to have some fun with.

The position Otama finds herself in is one of impossibility. A woman cannot survive alone in the Meiji era and its lingering concessions to feudalism. For a woman as poor and lowly as Otama whose marriage prospects are slim there are few options available. Otama’s neighbour (Kuniko Miyake) has managed to carve out a life for herself as a single woman through teaching sewing classes but such opportunities are few and far between, as Otama is warned when she considers following her example. The “arrangement” with Suezo may not seem too bad on the surface – he looks after her and her father, has set her up in a house, and treats her well even if his behaviour leans toward the possessive. Despite confessing to her father that she feels trapped and miserable, humiliated on learning she has been ostracised as the mistress of a married loanshark, Otama finds little sympathy as her father declares himself “very happy” and councils her against leaving because he has no desire to return to a life of poverty, remaining selfishly indifferent to his daughter’s suffering.

Resigned to her fate, Otama does her best to adapt to her new life but remains as trapped within Suezo’s house as the caged bird he presents her with “for company”. Jealous and fearing that his wife will find out about the affair, Suezo’s preference is for Otama to stay indoors waiting for him to call. His visits are routine and perfunctory. Handing the maid a few coins to go to the public bath, Suezo signals his intentions in the least romantic of ways, pausing only to lock the garden gate.

Catching sight of an earnest student who passes by everyday at 4, Otama begins to dream of something better. The student, Okada (Hiroshi Akutagawa), is a source of fascination for all the young women in the neighbourhood but he too is instantly captivated when he glimpses the beautiful Otama trapped behind the bar-like slats of Suzeo’s love nest. Adding a touch of biblical intrigue, it is a snake which eventually leads to their meeting but no matter how deep the connection this is a love destined to fail – Otama is the kept woman of a loanshark, and Okada is a medical student with international ambitions. They inhabit different worlds and, as his friend (Jukichi Uno) puts it, this is still the Meiji era, the times will not allow it.

Nevertheless, even if her brief infatuation seems doomed, the mere act of wanting something else provokes a shift in Otama’s way of thinking. This act of fierce individualism which prompts her to defy the dominant male forces in her life whose selfish choices have caused her nothing but misery would normally be severely punished in the name of preserving social harmony but Otama’s epiphany is different. The opening title card reminded us that this was a time wild geese still flew in the skies above Tokyo. It seems to imply that birds no longer fly here, that there is no true freedom or possibility for flight in the modern age of Showa, but Otama is a woman trapped in the cage of Meiji suddenly realising that the doors have been open all along. Her choices amount to a humiliating yet materially comfortable life of subjugation, or the path of individualistic freedom in embracing her true desires. Her dream of true love rescue may have been shattered, but Otama’s heart, at least, is finally free from the twin cages of social and patriarchal oppression.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Women of the Night (夜の女たち, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1948)

Women of the Night still 1Cinema of the immediate post-war period generally leaned towards upbeat positivity, insisting that, yes, the situation is painful and difficult but it wouldn’t always be this way, at least as long as ordinary people kept their chins up and worked hard to build a better future. Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (夜の女たち, Yoru no Onnatachi) is very much not interested in this rosy vision of future success being sold by a new morale boosting propaganda machine, but in laying bare the harsh and unforgiving nature of a society that was fast preparing to leave a significant part of its population far behind. Women suffer in war, but they suffer after war too – particularly in a society as stratified as Japan’s had been in which those left without familial support found themselves entirely excluded from the mainstream world.

Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka), a noble, naive woman still hasn’t heard from her presumably demobbed husband and is living with her in-laws. Her young son has tuberculosis and she is desperately short of money. Selling one of her kimonos, Fusako is excited to to hear of an “interesting proposition” but is repulsed when she realises the saleswoman is inciting her to an act of prostitution. After all, she says, everybody is doing it.

After undergoing a series of tragedies, Fusako thinks things are beginning to go right for her when she manages to get a secretarial job through the kindness of a connection, but it turns out that Mr. Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata) is not all he seems and his business may not be as legitimate as Fusako believed it to be. Another small miracle occurs on a street corner as Fusako runs into her long lost sister, Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), formerly living in Korea and now repatriated to Japan, but a return to normal family life seems impossible in the still smouldering ruins of Osaka filled with black marketeering, desperation, and hopelessness.

Inspired by the Italian Neo Realist movement, Mizoguchi makes brief use of location shooting to emphasise the current state of the city, still strewn with rubble and the aftermath of destruction. Osaka, like Natsuko and Fusako, finds itself at a cross roads of modernity, paralysed by indecision in looking for a way forward. Fusako, the kinder, more innocent sister dresses in kimono, does not smoke, and is committed to working hard to build a new life for herself. Natsuko, by contrast, dresses exclusively in Western clothing, smokes, drinks, and works as a hostess at a dancehall with the implication that she is already involved in casual forms of prostitution.

Natsuko’s way of life, and later that of Fusako’s much younger sister-in-law Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), is painted as a direct consequence of an act of sexual violence. Having been raped during the evacuation from Korea, Natsuko feels herself to have been somehow defiled and rendered unfit for a “normal” life, relegated to the underground world of the sex trade as an already damaged woman. Fusako disapproves of her sister’s choices and is alarmed by the unfamiliar world of bars and dance halls but eventually ends up in the world of prostitution herself as a result of emotional violence in the form of cruel yet incidental betrayal. Fusako’s “descent” into prostitution is less survival than an act both of revenge and of intense self-harm as she vows to avenge herself on the world of men through spreading venereal disease.

Mizoguchi’s attitudes towards sex work were always complex – despite displaying sympathy for women who found themselves trapped within red light district as his own sister had been, he was also a man who spent much of his life in the company of geishas. Nevertheless Women of the Night veers between empathy and disdain for the hosts of post-war “pan pans” existing in codependent female gangs in which violence and hierarchy were as much an essential part as mutual support. The film opens with a sign which instructs women that they should not be seen out after dark lest they will be taken for prostitutes, respectable women should make a point of being home at the proper hour. Later, when Fusako is picked up by a police raid, she comes across a woman from the “purity board” who wants to hand out some pamphlets to help women “reform” from their “impure” ways and temper their presumably insatiable sexual desire. Fusako quite rightly tells the woman where to go while the others echo her in confirming no one has volunteered to live this way because they like it. Starving to death with a pure heart is one thing, but what are any of these women supposed to do in a world that refuses them regular work when they have already lost friends and family and are entirely alone with no hope of survival?

A third option exists in the form of a home for women which has been set up for the express purpose of “reforming” former prostitutes so that they can lead “normal” lives. The home provides ample meals, medical treatment and work though its attitude can be slightly patronising even in its well meaning attempt to re-educate. Again the home is working towards an ideal which is not evident in reality – there are no jobs for these women to go to, and no husbands waiting to support them. Incurring yet another tragedy, Fusako receives a well meaning lecture from a male employee at the home to the effect that it’s time for women to work together to build a better world for all womankind but Fusako has seen enough of the sisterhood realise that won’t save her either and leaves the man to his platitudes trailing a dense cloud of contempt behind her.

Yet Fusako does change her mind, finally reunited with the missing Kumiko who has also fallen into prostitution after running away from home and being tricked by a boy who pretended to be nice but only ever planned to rob and rape her. In a furious scene of maternal rage, Fusako rails against her plight, enraged by Kumiko’s degradation which ultimately forces her to see her own. Brutally beaten by the other women for the mere suggestion of leaving the gang, Fusako is held, Christ-like, while she pleads for an end to this existence, that there should be no more women like these. The storm breaks and the other women gradually come over to Fusako’s side, depressed and demoralised, left with no clear direction to turn for salvation. Mizoguchi ends on a bleak note of eternal suffering and continuing impossibility but he pauses briefly to pan up to an unbroken stained glass window featuring the Madonna and child. Fusako emerges unbroken, taking Kumiko under her maternal wing, but the future they walk out into is anything but certain and their journey far from over.   


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season. Screening again on 21st October, 17.10.

The Outcast (破戒, AKA The Broken Commandment, Kon Ichikawa, 1962)

Kon Ichikawa’s approach to critiquing his society was often laced with a delicious slice of biting irony but he puts sarcasm to one side for this all too rare attempt to address the uncomfortable subject of Japan’s hidden underclass – the burakumin. The term itself simply means “people who live in hamlets” but from feudal times onwards it came to denote the kinds of people with whom others did not want to associate – notably those whose occupations dealt in some way with death from executioners and undertakers, to butchers and leatherworkers. Though outright discrimination against such people was outlawed during the Meiji restoration, social stigma and informal harassment remained common with some lingering tendency remaining even today.

The Outcast (破戒, Hakai), adapted from the book by Toson Shimazaki (known as The Broken Commandment in English) is the story of a young man of burakumin lineage who has to hide his true identity in order to live a normal life in the Japan of 1904. Segawa’s father, formerly a village elder, sent his son away to live with his brother and his wife in a distant town where they could better hide their burakumin status to enjoy a better standard of life. Sadly, Segawa’s father dies after being trampled by a recalcitrant bull never seeing his son again and leaving him with the solemn commandment to live as a regular person, never revealing his connection with the burakumin world.

This debt to his father’s sacrifice creates a conflict in the heart of the young and idealistic Segawa (Raizo Ichikawa). Forced to listen to the casual racism all around him and unable to offer any kind of resistance, Segawa has become interested in the writings of a polemical political figure, Rentaro Inoko (Rentaro Mikuni), who has begun to write passionate political treatises advocating for burakumin rights. When Inoko turns up in Segawa’s town, he finds himself a new father figure and political mentor but continues to feel constrained by the debt of honour to his father’s sacrifice and is unable to confess his own burakumin heritage even to Inoko.

The world Segawa lives in is a conservative and stratified one in which old superstitions hold true even whilst hypocritical authorities use and abuse the trust placed in them. Inoko falls foul of local politics after he discovers a politician has married a wealthy burakumin woman solely for her money and is planning to expose him at a political rally. This same politician has already threatened to blackmail Segawa who continues to deny all knowledge of any burakumin related activities whilst failing to quell the eventual gossip surrounding Segawa’s lineage. The gossip causes problems at the school where Segawa had held a prestigious teaching position as the headmaster and school board fear the reaction of the parents. Though the people at the temple where Segawa takes refuge after growing tired of the racist inn owners in town are broadly supportive of the burakumin, the priest there has his own problems after having made a clumsy pass at his adopted daughter, Shio (Shiho Fujimura) – the daughter of a drunken teacher sacked by the school in order to avoid paying him a proper pension. At every turn the forces of authority are universally corrupt, selfish and venal, leaving no safe direction for a possible revolution of social justice to begin.

This is Segawa’s central conflict. After his experiences with Inoko, Segawa begins to want to follow in his footsteps, living out and proud as a burakumin and full time activist for burakumin rights. However, this would be undoing everything for which his father sacrificed so much. Talking things over with Inoko’s non-burakumin wife, Segawa is also presented with a third way – reveal his burakumin heritage and attempt to live honestly as an ordinary person, changing hearts and minds simply through leading a life among many other lives. This option seems attractive, especially as Segawa has fallen in love and would like to lead an ordinary life with a wife and family, but his youthful idealism is hungry for a greater, faster change than the one which will be born through simple integration. Despite the warnings of Inoko’s wife who believes change will occur not through activism but through the passage of time, Segawa decides his future lies in advancing the burakumin cause in the wider world.

When Segawa does choose to reveal himself, he finds that there is far more sympathy and support than he would ever have expected. A woman he has come to love wants to stay by his side, his previously hostile friend rethinks his entire approach to life and apologises, and even the children in his class convince their parents that their teacher is a good and a kind man regardless of whatever arbitrary social distinction may have been passed to him through an accident of birth. Segawa’s conflicted soul speaks not only for the burakumin but for all hidden and oppressed peoples who have been forced to keep a side of themselves entirely secret, faced with either living a lie in the mainstream world or being confined to life within their own community. His choice is one of either capitulation and collaboration, or resistance which amounts to a sacrifice of his own potential happiness in the hope that it will bring about liberation for other similarly oppressed people.

Scripted again by Natto Wada, The Outcast takes a slightly clumsy, didactic approach filled with long, theatrical speeches but does ultimately prove moving and inspiring in advocating for the fair treatment of these long maligned people as well as others facing similar discrimination in an unforgiving world. As a treatise on identity and rigid social attitudes, the film has lost none of its power or urgency even forty years later in a world in which progress has undoubtedly been made even if there are still distances to go.


 

Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Masaki Kobayashi, 1954)

somewhere-beneath-the-wide-skyOf the chroniclers of the history of post-war Japan, none was perhaps as unflinching as Masaki Kobayashi. However, everyone has to start somewhere and as a junior director at Shochiku where he began as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi was obliged to make his share of regular studio pictures. This was even truer following his attempt at a more personal project – Thick Walled Room, which dealt with the controversial subject of class C war criminals and was deemed so problematic that it lingered on the shelves for quite some time. Made the same year as the somewhat similar Three Loves, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Kono Hiroi Sora no Dokoka ni) is a fairly typical contemporary drama of ordinary people attempting to live in the new and ever changing post-war world, yet it also subtly hints at Kobayashi’s ongoing humanist preoccupations in its conflict between the idealistic young student Noboru and his practically minded (yet kind hearted) older brother.

The Moritas own the liquor store in this tiny corner of Ginza, where oldest brother Ryoichi (Keiji Sada) has recently married country girl Hiroko (Yoshiko Kuga). The household consists of mother-in-law Shige (Kumeko Urabe), step-mother to Ryoichi, unmarried sister Yasuko (Hideko Takamine), and student younger brother Noboru (Akira Ishihama). Things are actually going pretty well for the family, they aren’t rich but the store is prospering and they’re mostly happy enough – except when they aren’t. Ryoichi married for love, but his step-mother and sister aren’t always as convinced by his choice as he is, despite Hiroko’s friendly nature and constant attempts to fit in.

As if to signal the dividing wall between the generations, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky opens with a discussion between two older women, each complaining about their daughters-in-law and the fact that their sons married for love rather than agreeing to an arranged marriage as was common in their day. These love matches, they claim, have unbalanced the family dynamic, giving the new wife undue powers against the matriarchal figure of the mother-in-law. While the other woman’s main complaint is that her son’s wife is absent minded and bossy, Shige seems to have little to complain about bar Hiroko’s slow progress with becoming used to the runnings of the shop.

Despite this, both women appear somewhat hostile towards Ryoichi’s new wife, often making her new home an uncomfortable place for her to be. Though Hiroko is keen to pitch in with the shop and the housework, Shige often refuses her help and is preoccupied with trying to get the depressed Yasuko to do her fair share instead. At 28 years old, Yasuko has resigned herself to a life of single suffering, believing it will now be impossible for her to make a good a match. Yasuko had been engaged to a man she loved before the war but when he returned and discovered that she now walks with a pronounced limp following an injury during an air raid, he left her flat with a broken heart. Embittered and having internalised intense shame over her physical disability, Yasuko finds the figure of her new sister-in-law a difficult reminder of the life she will never have.

A crisis approaches when an old friend (and perhaps former flame) arrives from Hiroko’s hometown and raises the prospect of abandoning her young marriage to return home instead. No matter how her new relatives make her feel, Hiroko is very much in love with Ryoichi and has no desire to leave him. Thankfully, Ryoichi is a kind and understanding man who can see how difficult the other women in the house are making things for his new wife and is willing to be patient and trust Hiroko to make what she feels is the right decision.

Ryoichi’s talent for tolerance is seemingly infinite in his desire to run a harmonious household. However, he, unlike younger brother Noboru, is of a slightly older generation with a practical mindset rather than an idealistic one. Ryoichi simply wants to prosper and ensure a happy and healthy life for himself and his family. This doesn’t mean he’s averse to helping others and is actually a very kind and decent person, but he is quick to point out that he needs to help himself first. Thus he comes into conflict with little brother Noburu from whom the film’s title comes.

Noburu is a dreamer, apt to look up at the wide sky as symbol of his boundless dreams. His fortunes are contrasted with the far less fortunate fellow student Mitsui (Masami Taura), who comes from a much less prosperous and harmonious family, finding himself working five different jobs just to eat twice a day and study when he can. Noburu wants to believe in a brighter world where things like his sister’s disability would be irrelevant and something could be done to help people like Mitsui who are struggling to get by when others have it so good. Ryoichi thinks this is all very well, but it’s pie in the sky thinking and when push comes to shove you have to respect “the natural order of things”. Ryoichi wants to work within the system and even prosper by it, where as Noburu, perhaps like Kobayashi himself, would prefer that the “natural order of things” became an obsolete way of thinking.

Nevertheless, it is the power of kindness which cures all. Gloomy Yasuko begins to live again after re-encountering an old school friend and being able to help her when she is most in of need of it. Being of use after all helps her put thoughts of her disability to the back of her mind and so, after hiding from a man who’d loved her in the past out of fearing his reaction to her current state (and overhearing his general indifference on hearing of it), she makes the bold decision to strike out for love and the chance of happiness in the beautiful, yet challenging, mountain environment.

Like many films of the era, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is invested in demonstrating that life may be hard at times, but it will get better and the important thing is to find happiness wherever it presents itself. This is not quite the message Kobayashi was keen on delivering in his subsequent career which calls for a more circumspect examination of contemporary society along with a need for greater personal responsibility for creating a kinder, fairer and more honest one. A much more straightforward exercise, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is Kobayashi channeling Kinoshita but minimising his sentimentality. Nevertheless, it does present a warm tale of a family finally coming together as its central couple prepares to pick up the reins and ride on into the sometimes difficult but also full of possibility post-war world.


 

A Mother’s Love (母情, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1950)

mothers-loveShimizu’s depression era work was not lacking in down on their luck single mothers forced into difficult positions as they fiercely fought for their children’s future, but 1950’s A Mother’s Love (母情, Bojo) takes an entirely different approach to the problem. Once again Shimizu displays his customary sympathy for all but this particular mother, Toshiko, does not immediately seem to be the self sacrificing embodiment of maternal virtues that the genre usually favours.

Tellingly, when we first meet Toshiko she’s asleep on a bus as her three children badger a friendly artist who’s entertaining them by drawing a picture of their pretty mother. The boys are quick correct themselves when talking about the woman they’re with – she’s their “aunt” not their mother, but the artist sees through the ruse. Toshiko is heading to visit her brother in the country in the hope that he will look after her children for awhile offering the explanation that she wants to get married again. Her brother is sympathetic to her problems, but has six children of his own already (and perhaps a seventh on the way) so taking in three extra mouths to feed is not really an option. Agreeing to look after the youngest girl, they suggest trying an elderly uncle but remind her that he has a rather conservative mindset and may ask all sorts of questions about Toshiko’s recent past which she might not want to answer.

Not to worry, the uncle seems to have mellowed with age though he can’t take in two growing boys either and suggests asking a friend of his who’s been trying for a baby for years but has been unable to have one. When that doesn’t work out Toshiko deposits her second son at the uncle’s and travels on with just her oldest boy, Fusao, but as time goes on Toshiko begins to rethink her decision to have her children fostered out and wonders if just being together might be worth more than a stable economic life founded on the pain of abandonment.

The protagonists of “hahamono” which praise the idea of the noble, self sacrificing mother are not universally saintly but the one thing they never do is consider leaving their children. In this regard Toshiko is not immediately sympathetic. Rejecting the name “mother” for “aunt” in the hope of hooking a prospective husband, Toshiko has already marked herself as falling outside of the idealised mother standards and her rather cool, snappy way of addressing the children does not go in her favour either. Her brother greets her warmly (even if he seems to suspect that she’s probably come because she wants something) and has no desire to drag up the past but points out that other people might not be so charitable given that all three children have different fathers and Toshiko has never revealed how she supported herself towards the end of the war and in its immediate aftermath. Nevertheless, Shimizu refuses to judge her. Her life has been a hard one and she herself was fostered out herself as a child. Toshiko’s decision may not be one everyone would agree with but that doesn’t mean it was an easy one for her to make, or that she feels nothing in giving up her children.

The biggest tragedy is that the kids will be separated. Apparently often left to fend for themselves at home whilst Toshiko works, the children are a mini band of three and it seems even more cruel that they will be deprived not only of a mother but of their siblings too. Though the youngest girl tries to run after her mother and brothers, and the second son cries so much that his brother goes back to give him one of his comic books to cheer him up, Fusao is even more upset and anxious as the last remaining child. Constantly wetting the bed which costs him his place at a few prospective new homes, Fusao is plagued by the idea that his mother is about to abandon him and finally pleads with her that he can take care of his siblings by himself if only they can all stay together.

Fusao’s pleas eventually soften his mother’s heart though she begins to think again after coming across a band of itinerant performers, one of whom is nursing an infant despite her poverty and the harshness of her life. The young woman seems devoted to her child and is determined to take care of it even though she has no husband to help her. The child’s grandmother urged her daughter to give the baby up to someone with more resources to raise it but the girl refused, no matter how hard it may turn out to be. Moved, and feeling even more guilty in witnessing the hardships another mother is bearing for her child, Toshiko’s resolve begins to weaken.

When Toshiko is taken ill at an inn and her friend from the city, Mitsuko, comes to visit her it is revealed that Toshiko’s plan is not another marriage but that the two women are in the process of opening a bar – hence why she needs to farm out her children. Mitsuko has also sent her daughter to a relative so that she can plow all her time and money into the enterprise though no one knows how long it will take until the place is successful enough to support the full families of both women. It may be, therefore, that Toshiko’s desire to run her own business is for the ultimate benefit of her children who will finally have a degree of economic security. On thinking again, she wonders if it isn’t selfish vanity and that she’s sacrificing her children to fulfil her own desires.

Shimizu takes a more conservative viewpoint than that found in his other work by encouraging Toshiko to reject the prospect of being her own boss to embrace the traditional values of her natural maternity. The old nurse Toshiko visits in the hope that she will take in Fusao (which she almost certainly would have done) remarks that a full belly isn’t everything and being together might be enough, but that doesn’t quite explain what the obviously desperate Toshiko is going to do to survive from here on in. One can only hope that she somehow finds a way to make the bar work (even if it takes a little longer) rather than be left with nothing all over again. Focusing less on the children than on the maternal conflict as Toshiko becomes torn by the traditional values as seen in her rural hometown and the less forgiving modernism of the city, Shimizu retains an understanding tone but also eschews the concessions to pragmatism which so often went hand in hand with his forward looking idealism, for a reassertion of conservative values which fly in the face of his usually compassionate acceptance of the very real difficulties faced by women in a conformist and male dominated society.


 

Miss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Miss LonelyMiss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Sabishinbou, AKA Lonelyheart) is the final film in Obayashi’s Onomichi Trilogy all of which are set in his own hometown of Onomichi. This time Obayashi casts up and coming idol of the time, Yasuko Tomita, in a dual role of a reserved high school student and a mysterious spirit known as Miss Lonely. In typical idol film fashion, Tomita also sings the theme tune though this is a much more male lead effort than many an idol themed teen movie.

Obayashi begins with an intertitle-like tribute to a “brusied, brilliant boyhood” before giving way to a wistful voiceover from the film’s protagonist Hiroki Inoue (played by frequent Obayashi collaborator, Toshinori Omi). His life is a fairly ordinary one of high school days spent with his two good friends, getting up to energetic mischief as teenage boys are want to do. The only thing that’s a little different about Hiroki is that his father is a Buddhist priest so he lives in the temple with his feisty mother who is always urging him to study more, and he’ll one day be expected to start training to take over the temple from his father (he has no particular aversion to this idea).

Hiroki’s big hobby is photography and he’s recently splashed out on a zoom lens but rarely has money for film to put in the camera so he’s mostly just playing around, accidentally spying on people. The main object of his interest is a sad looking high school girl who spends her days playing the piano. Hiroki, as an observer of human nature, has decided that she must be just as lonely as he is and has given her the name of “Miss Lonely”. It comes as a shock to him then that a very similar looking sprite appears, also called “Miss Lonely” and proceeds to cause havoc in his very ordinary life.

Although the film is filled with Obayashi’s trademark melancholy nostalgia, there is also ample room for quirky teen comedy as the central trio of boys amuse them selves with practical jokes. The best of these involves a lengthly sequence with the headmaster’s prized parrot which he has painstakingly taught to recite poetry. On being sent to clean up the headmaster’s office after misbehaving in class, the boys quickly set about teaching it a bawdy song instead causing the poor bird to hopelessly mangle both speeches into one very strange recitation. This comes to light when the headmaster attempts to show off his prowess with the parrot to an important visitor but when the mothers of the three boys are called in to account for their sons’ behaviour, they cannot control their laughter. That’s in addition to a repeated motif of the boys’ teacher’s loose skirt always falling off at impromptu moments, and a tendency to head off into surreal set pieces such as the anarchic musical number which erupts at the stall where one of the boys works part time.

Miss Lonely herself appears in a classic mime inspired clown outfit, dressed as if she’d just walked out of an audition for a Fellini film. To begin with, Hiroki can only see Miss Lonely through his camera lens, but she quickly incarnates and eventually even becomes visible to others as well as Hiroki himself. Past and present overlap as Miss Lonely takes on a ghostly quality, perhaps reliving a former romance of memory which may be easily destroyed by water and is sure to be short lived. Love makes you lonely, Hiroki tells us, revelling in the failure to launch of his first love story. Though, if the epilogue he offers us is to be believed, perhaps he is over romanticising his teenage heartbreak and is heading for a happy ending after all.

Chopin also becomes a repeated motif in the film, bringing our trio of lovesick teens together with his music and adding to their romantic malaise with his own history of a difficult yet intense relationship with French novelist George Sand. There’s a necessarily sad quality to Hiroki’s tale, an acceptance of lost love and lost opportunities leaving their scars across otherwise not unhappy lifetimes. Set in Obayashi’s own hometown Miss Lonely takes on a very heartfelt quality, marking a final farewell to youth whilst also acknowledging the traces of sadness left behind when it’s time to say goodbye.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s idol star Yasuko Tomita singing the title song on a variety show from way back in 1985