The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960)

Wandering Princess posterAs in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.

Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.

Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.

Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.

The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.

Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.

Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.


The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.

Family Diary (家庭日記, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938)

Family Diary posterDespite the unending popularity of the romantic melodrama, Hiroshi Shimizu never quite got the bug. For Shimizu, romance is always abstracted – it either goes unresolved or reaches a point of resolution but only through unpleasant or unpalatable circumstances. There are few unambiguously “happy” couples in Shimizu’s movies, but Family Diary (家庭日記, Katei Nikki) takes things one step further in its twin tales of the romantic destinies of two very different students one of whom took the sensible path and the other the path of foolish love.

First we meet the sensible one. Fuji (Shin Saburi) takes a last twilight stroll with his current girlfriend, Kikue (Kuniko Miyake), after which they burn their letters as a symbol of their parting. Now that his brother’s business has failed, Fuji is marrying into a wealthy family who will pay for the remainder of his studies. Meanwhile his best friend, Tsuji (Ken Uehara), is grumpily drinking with a bar girl he plans to marry despite the objection of his parents. Fuji marries Shinako (Sanae Takasugi) and becomes an Ubukata while Tsuji marries Ume (Michiko Kuwano) and goes to Dalian in Manchuria. Some years later when Tsuji returns to Tokyo along with his wife and son, Ubukata has become a successful, happily married man. Coincidentally, Kikue who had gone to Manchuria to escape her heartbreak has also returned and opened up a small hairdressing shop which runs herself as a single woman looking after her younger sister, Yaeko (Mitsuko Miura).

The contrast between Ubukata and Tsuji is set up early on as Ubukata is repeatedly categorised as cold and unfeeling where as Tsuji is unmanly and oversensitive. Ubukata describes Tsuji as “sentimental”, “too delicate”, “almost the artistic type” for his compassionate desire to avoid awkwardness between their wives who, after all, must at least try to become friends if the relationship between the men is to be maintained. He urges him to “think about simpler things” which is most often the way Ubukata appears to think. That is not to say it didn’t hurt to abandon Kikue, but he comforted himself in the knowledge that he was doing the “best” thing based on a series of practical calculations. Ubukata is not heartless, but he is a committed pragmatist and sometimes insensitive to the suffering of others who might not agree with the way he works things out as his wife suggests when she (cheerfully enough) reproaches him for not paying attention to other people’s feelings.

Tsuji, having chosen to marry for love, at times seems envious of Ubukata’s settled home life with his traditional Japanese wife who trails behind him in kimono and rarely goes out without informing her husband first. Where Ubukata’s match might be seen as a betrayal of love for money, his home is harmonious whereas the Tsujis’ is not. Ubukata, it has to be said, is polite enough to Ume but makes no secret of his distaste for her unrefined character. Tsuji’s parents objected to the match because Ume was a bar girl (and, it is implied, a casual prostitute) and though Tsuji has no problem with her past, the snobbish attitudes of men like Ubukata continue to plague her however much she tries to play by the rules of their society. When Ubukata takes Tsuji to dinner, Tsuji asks him not to tell Shinako about Ume’s past in case she looks down on her to which Ubukata tells him he’s being over sensitive but later consents if only because he finds the subject distasteful in any case and is an old fashioned gallant sort of man.

Ume is however out of place in this upper middle-class environment as she demonstrates by provocatively lighting a cigarette while entertaining Ubukata and Shinako who ends up lighting it for her with a look of mild awe in her eyes. Ume fears this world will reject her – something it ultimately does when Tsuji tries to reconnect with his family, but in reality she has already rejected it herself. Unable to see past her own fears and regrets she doubts her husband’s love and lives in constant anxiety, waiting for the next slight from a hoity toity housewife to remind her that she doesn’t deserve all of this “happiness”. Though the Tsujis are “unhappy” there is also love, even if it is complicated and often misunderstood.

Both marriages are ultimately destabilised by external forces – Tsuji’s by his family’s attempts to expunge Ume by “stealing” her son and later plotting to pay her off on the condition she absent herself, and Ubukata’s by the resurfacing of the romantic love that he sacrificed for material gain. Though Ubukata has no intention of rehashing the past, he does want to be of service to Kikue (again, misreading her feelings and attempting to make himself feel better rather than improve the fortunes of another) – something which places a wedge between himself and his wife when she eventually learns of the circumstances which led to her marriage. Yet the wedge itself is not so much caused by Kikue as by Ubukata’s supreme coolness in which he sees no reason to explain himself to his wife because his actions have satisfied his own sense of righteousness and must therefore also satisfy hers.

Though Shinako is tempted by the sophisticated, westernised ways of “modern girl” Ume, and later pressed by fears her husband has never loved her, she remains a steadfast Japanese wife, effortlessly poised and always polite even under emotional duress. Despite their obvious differences, Shinako comes to care for Ume – even becoming something like her only friend, but Ume is only “accepted” by the world of the film after she “proves” herself as an emotional woman through an act of self inflicted violence which somehow demonstrates her essential purity and goodheartedness. Ume prepares to make an exit before being shown the door, but her act of pure desperation and extreme wretchedness becomes her social salvation and finally earns her a place in the moral universe of practical men like Ubukata who now rate her worthy. Thus the social order is restored, the official bonds of marriage held up, and Ubukata’s callous and calculating way of life found to be the better course, but there’s something less than convincing in Shinako’s assertion that everything will be alright now as she and her husband become another of Shimizu’s figures disappearing over a distant bridge.


The Portrait (肖像, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

vlcsnap-2018-09-06-01h35m07s763The immediate post-war period was one of fear and hardship. You might survive, but you might not like the person you’ll have to become in order to do so. The (unexpected) heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Portrait (肖像, Shozo) thought she’d made her peace with her choices, only to be confronted by a vision of her essential self as seen through the eyes of a cheerfully innocent artist. Despite the harshness of the times, there are those who’ve learned to be happy in their lot, but is their talent for happiness inspiration or irritation for those who’ve chosen a different path?

Kinoshita opens with a comic scene in which two shady real estate brokers take a look at a local property. Deciding it’s overpriced and impractical, the pair nevertheless decide to buy it together with the intention of flipping it once they convert the downstairs workspace into more practical living accommodation. There is, however, a slight hitch in that there are sitting tenants – a painter and his family who live in the room upstairs and use the rooms below as a studio. Thinking it will be easy enough to evict them, the men aren’t bothered but the the family are all so relentlessly nice that no one has yet been able to tell them to go. As a last resort, one of the men, Kaneko (Eitaro Ozawa), decides to move into the upstairs with his mistress, Midori (Kuniko Igawa), in the hope that the family will feel so awkward and in the way they will decide to vacate. Innocent and unworldly, the Nomuras all assume Midori is her lover’s daughter rather than his mistress, and start treating her like a well to do young lady. Such sudden and unexpected respect starts to weigh on Midori’s mind as she finds herself playing along, pretending to be “nice” and “respectable” while knowing that the life she’s living is anything but.

The problem is that the Nomuras are so essentially kind and welcoming that they really don’t mind sharing the house. Mr. Nomura (Ichiro Sugai), the middle-aged painter, feels guilty that he doesn’t earn more money and is too poor to move, but he’s also the sort to get over excited about having grown a giant pumpkin that he can’t resist showing to absolutely everyone. As it turns out the Nomuras are also living with a private tragedy – their eldest son Ichiro (Toru Abe) whose wife Kumiko (Kuniko Miyake) and son Koichi also live with the family has not yet returned home from the war and his whereabouts are unknown. Still, they don’t mind talking about it and are as happy as they can be, dancing away under the light of the moon – an unexpected upside to constant power outages. Meanwhile, Kaneko complains loudly as he attempts to finish his accounts in the evening gloom.

Midori half envies, half resents her new neighbours. The longer she lives with the Nomuras the guiltier she starts to feel in deceiving them. Matters begin to come to a head when Mr. Nomura asks permission to paint her portrait. He thinks Midori has a very “interesting” face, in part because he can see a sadness in her eyes that is totally absent in those of his daughter, Yoko (Yoko Katsuragi). Midori agrees and swaps her usual Western attire for the kimono her mother once gave her, but the picture Mr. Nomura paints begins to bother her. The portrait is of a pure young woman, innocent and honest, which is about as far from the way she sees herself as it’s possible to be.

As a friend of Midori’s puts it, you have to survive somehow and Midori thought she’d made her peace with the way she has decided to live but the portrait reminds her that she wasn’t always like this and now she’s not sure which version of herself she ought to despise. She wishes she could paint herself over, but feels her fate is sealed and there’s no way back. Kumiko, a little more worldly wise than her in-laws, is perfectly aware of what’s been going on upstairs but isn’t at all bothered by it. She doesn’t blame Midori for the choices that she’s made and thinks the picture is accurate in capturing her true soul, advising her that it is possible to be that woman again if that’s what she really wants.

The Portrait was scripted by none other than Akira Kurosawa whose belief in the essential goodness of humanity was perhaps not quite as strong as Kinoshita’s but the Nomuras are nevertheless typical Kinoshita heroes and it’s their unguarded warmth and kindness which begins to change the world for those around them. Even the cynical Kaneko is eventually moved by their cheerful selflessness, forced to accept their accidental moral victory rather than continue with his nefarious plan. Midori, forced into a reconsideration of herself, stands in for a generation attempting to make peace with the compromises of the past, learning that they don’t need to define the future and that it isn’t too late to strive for a more authentic life of simple happiness even if you feel you may have already sunk too far.


The Nomuras dancing in the moonlight

Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Yasujiro Shimazu, 1939)

Okayo's Preparedness title cardYasujiro Shimazu had been the pioneer of the “shomingeki” and a fierce chronicler of the lives of ordinary lower middle class people. The growing presence of the militarist regime, however, demanded a slight shift of focus. 1939’s Okayo’s Preparedness (お加代の覚悟, Okayo no Kakugo) has its share of propaganda content, but it’s also mildly subversive. In the conventional narrative, a woman must get married and a man must find a purpose. Shimazu turns this upside-down – a man becomes a husband and a woman finds artistic fulfilment in the midst of heartbreak.

In the contemporary era, Osumi’s (Kuniko Miyake) husband has been drafted and is away fighting at the front leaving her alone at home where she makes ends meet running a traditional dance school while looking after their small daughter Mitsuko (Kazue Hayashi). Okayo (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the star pupil at school and also a live-in apprentice, functioning almost as a servant but regarded as a member of the family. The trouble begins when a Osumi gets a visit from her brother-in-law who has received a letter from her husband in which he requests some photographs of his wife and family going about their daily lives while he is unable to be with them. The amateur photographer he’s brought along is a young man of quality and the older brother of one of the school’s pupils. Okayo has developed a fondness for Shunsaku (Ken Uehara) during her time walking his little sister home and secretly hopes he returns her affections. Shy and nervous, she is nevertheless overjoyed when he takes her for tea while they wait for the photographs to be developed. Shunsaku, however, was just being kind. He actually has his eye on another pupil at the school (someone more of his social class) and Okayo is destined to experience her first real heartbreak.

Shimazu gets his propaganda obligations out of the way fairly quickly. We cut to a picture of a man in uniform proudly hanging on the wall whom we later realise to be Osumi’s absent husband. Though Osumi worries about him, his enlistment was regarded as a cause for celebration – Okayo felt obliged to have a rare cup of sake, and it’s clear Osumi is proud to be married to a man defending the nation. Nevertheless, it is also clear that he is experiencing suffering – Okayo and Osumi wonder if he too can enjoy the simple pleasures of warm sake and boiled tofu so far away from home, and Osumi also makes sure to send him a pair of of geta in her care package fearing that he may be missing the small but essential facets of his Japaneseness. Though this is only 1939 and the situation is not yet “serious” there is the betrayal of a mild anxiety in Osumi’s fears as well as in her husband’s letter which states the anxiety he feels after learning that a friend was told of trouble at home only after the fact. After all, it’s hard to put unpleasant news in a letter to someone you know to be already experiencing hardship. Hence the request for the photographs – real visual evidence that his wife and daughter are healthy and happy, rather than mere words which may be offered in the interests of comfort.

Meanwhile, Shimazu is secretly building a second argument behind the scenes. We expect the simple love story of Okayo and Shunsaku will proceed along the usual lines. He will come to appreciate her and they will marry despite the class difference and the difficulty of the times. That is not, however, what happens. Okayo’s attraction is apparently one-sided. Osumi’s brother-in-law warns her that Shunsaku is popular with the ladies, even if he also points out his rather stiff, respectable nature. Shunsaku’s mother has apparently had difficulty finding a suitable match for him which increases Okayo’s hopes, but the reason turns out to be that he has developed at attraction for another pupil at the school, as Okayo finds out listening at the door when Shunsaku’s mother comes to Osumi for an additional character reference. All at once Okayo’s world collapses. She remembers that she is a servant, forever separated from the “nice young ladies” who take classes at the school, and that her youthful romance has been little more than a distracting fantasy.

Earlier on, while taking tea with Shunsaku, Okayo had remarked on how important Osumi had told her her dancing training was as a means of achieving independence and self-sufficiency. The ability to dance well enough to teach (and acquire such well regarded pupils) is after all how Osumi has been able to support herself with a husband away in the army. Osumi’s brother-in-law also tells her something similar when he reminds her that it’s important for her to concentrate on her art rather than getting lost in a romantic daydream. Osumi, realising how hurt Okayo has become after overhearing her conversation with Shunsaku’s mother tries to comfort her with the same logic, convincing her that her infatuation in an entirely normal part of being young and that it will pass. Encouraging her to concentrate on her dancing so that she can turn it into a valid career, Osumi provides both a shoulder to cry on and a valid plan for the future, remaining both sympathetic and supportive in witnessing her pupil’s suffering.

Making a bold formal switch, Shimazu dramatises Okayo’s moment of self-actualisation as a dance sequence taking place in parallel to Shunsaku’s wedding. Sadly picking up a bow she slowly moves to the stage and begins to sing, eventually moving into dance before the scene dissolves and Okayo is in full costume, mid-performance playing the part of a brokenhearted woman watching her beloved marry another. Having danced through her pain and doubly experienced the suffering of her romantic disillusionment, Okayo collapses in exhaustion on the bare stage of the studio, gazing out at the windows and weeping once again as they remain empty yet perhaps open.


Eclipse (金環蝕, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1934)

Shimizu Eclipse 1Though most often remembered for his contribution to the cinema of children, Hiroshi Shimizu was also a practiced chronicler of his difficult times. 1934’s Eclipse (金環蝕, Kinkanshoku), unlike much of his other work from the period, avoids direct reference to Japan’s increasingly global or imperialist ambitions but paints its rapid shift towards “modernity” as dangerous and potentially tragic for the unlucky few who for one reason or another are unable to secure their passage towards a harmonious and prosperous future. Adopting the form of a classic romantic melodrama, Eclipse is a bittersweet exploration of corrupted social virtues which ends on an ironic note of defeated victory.

Shimizu begins in a traditional rural village which is all abuzz because prodigal son Seiji Kanda (Shiro Kanemitsu) – now a big shot lawyer in the city, is set to return and, rumour has it, is on the look out for a good country wife. Regarding a marriage to a promising young man like Seiji as the highest of prizes, the village women gossip about whom he might choose and correctly conclude Kinue Nishimura (Hiroko Kawasaki) is likely to be the front runner given her comparatively high education level, beauty, poise, and kindness. Kinue, however, has long been in love with her diffident cousin, Shukichi Osaki (Mitsugu Fujii), who now finds himself in a difficult position as Seiji’s best friend and the go-between charged with communicating his intention to marry. Called to a secret meeting by an old watermill, Kinue is shocked and offended when Shukichi proposes on behalf of someone else, strongly refusing the proposal and reminding him of all the times they had spent together during which she believed an attachment had been formed. Shukichi, whose family is impoverished, does not reject her affections but claims not to want to stand in the way of his friend’s romantic dreams.

Kinue, perhaps unwittingly setting up the ongoing drama, asks if she is to sacrifice her heart and marry a man she does not love and believes would ultimately be unhappy with a woman who yearns for someone else, in order that Shuikichi may continue to feel noble. In the end, Shukichi tries to make her decision for her by running away to the city in the hope of making a life for himself in the same way that Seiji has done. Kinue, brokenhearted, rejects the idea of marrying Seiji and runs off after him only to end up working as a bar girl under the bright lights of Tokyo. Meanwhile, Shukichi discovers that the bonds of obligation which carry so much weight the village are all but worthless in the city when his various contacts refuse to see him and he finds it impossible to gain promising employment. His big break comes when he is knocked over by the chauffeur of the man who just offered to pay his train fare back to the country and thereafter is taken into the family home as a tutor for the youngest son on the insistence of the forthright “modern girl” daughter, Tomone (Michiko Kuwano). Needless to say, the romantic drama isn’t over as Tomone also has a “cousin” who is in love with her and is also sought by Seiji who was her tutor while he was in college and she in school.

The values of the old world and the new are in constant conflict with each other though ultimately it is the failure to act decisively on one’s emotions which causes the greatest harm. Shukichi, knowing his family is poor and a marriage to Seiji the “better” social and financial option for Kinue, insists on nobly sacrificing himself in what he sees as her interest but in doing so rejects her own agency or right to choose her future, assuming she will simply passively pass into the arms of Seiji with no resistance. Kinue, however, resists by following him to Tokyo but, unable to find him, is forced into the sex trade to support herself. Meanwhile, Shukichi continues to break hearts in the city – firstly that of Tomone who has apparently fallen in love with him despite their class difference, but also that of Kayo (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) – the sister of the chauffeur who knocked him over. Still in love with Kinue he diffidently (but not categorically) rejects the affections of the two women but also refuses to act on his feelings for Kinue until he tries a last ditch attempt to “rescue” her from a fall into a life of prostitution through a worrying act of frustrated physical violence (something which ultimately fails).   

The final resolution is brought about by Seiji who, unlike Shukichi, has been able to reconcile his essential nobility with the forward moving nature of the times. Seiji, figuring out that he’d come between a loose arrangement between Kinue and her cousin, is full of remorse and steps back without a second thought, desiring only happiness for all rather than victory or conquest. Again, at the end, becoming the second choice match for Tomone, he returns to fix what he half feels he has broken by “rescuing” Kinue himself through an act of gentleman’s diplomacy and then giving his friend a good talking to. The problem becomes less of one of East and West, town and country, past and future, but personal integrity. Tomone laments that her “selfishness” has caused pain to others – something for which she is trying to make amends in becoming a “good wife” to Seiji, but this is a lesson Shukichi has been slow to learn. His failure to integrate his conflicting desires coupled with a feeling of social inferiority due to his family’s reduced circumstances and standing in the village has effectively created this web of broken hearts and ruined futures, all of which might have been avoided if he had been braver and chosen to stay at home with the woman he loved at his side, living a life of simplicity but with emotional integrity.

These twin destinies are reinforced by the final scenes which find Seiji and Tomone boarding a boat to the West to immense fanfare and celebration, while Kinue and Shukichi are perched aboard a baggage train, he standing and she sitting dejectedly, silent and apart as the rails speed away behind them. The city recedes and the chance of future happiness for our reunited lovers seems slim despite the conventionally romantic nature of their togetherness as they return home drenched in defeat. Seduced and betrayed by the bright lights of Tokyo, Kinue and Shukichi seem bound for the life they should have lived if they’d only been brave enough to fight for happiness at home rather than succumbing to the false promises of modernity but it remains to be seen if their time in the city can be “eclipsed” by a new hope for a traditional future or will continue to overshadow their simple and honest lives in the days to come.


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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