Five Men in a Circus (サーカス五人組, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

“Life is a journey” according to the melancholy heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Five Men in a Circus (サーカス五人組, Circus Goningumi), one of the director’s early anti-comedies in which a collection of itinerant performers find not so much hope for the future as accommodation with despair. Though the Japan of 1935 was not perhaps as straitened as the nation was to become, an all pervasive sense of hopelessness traps these travelling players in perpetual motion, burdened by the unattainability of their dreams as they find themselves continually moving forward while standing still. 

The five men of the title are an itinerant jinta brass band, though to tell the truth not a very good one. They were supposed to be on their way to play at a primary school sports day, only when they get there they’re told the event has been postponed to the following spring. After having wasted the afternoon killing time playing on the monkey bars and children’s slide, they decide to give a little concert anyway, not that anyone’s listening and there’s no real chance of getting paid. It’s in the next town, however, that they make a series of serendipitous meetings connected with a travelling circus which is currently undergoing a crisis as the entire male company has gone on strike against the boss’ tyrannical management style in a subversive dig at rising authoritarianism. 

All things considered, the circus seems to be doing pretty well for itself. It has a sizeable company with several accomplished performers and appears to be drawing good audiences. The boss (Sadao Maruyama) dresses in fancy outfits and there doesn’t seem to be much anxiety over hunger or any sign of the usual worries with which films about itinerant performers are usually concerned, all of which is in direct contrast to the jinta guys whose ragged appearance and habit of pinching yukata from the various inns on their route make plain their relative poverty. “None of us do jinta because we like it” the oldest of the players Seiroku (Ko Mihashi) points out, a woman behind in the bar him echoing that no one becomes a hostess because they like it either. None of these men had a burning desire to be in a band, they simply ended up there and now they can’t get out. Young orphan Kokichi (Heihachiro Okawa), however, dreams of going to Tokyo to study the violin carrying around a record of Western classical music to refresh his soul while worrying that his jinta life is corrupting him.  

Kokichi’s earnestness finds a fan and a mirror in Chiyoko (Masako Tsutsumi), the older daughter of the circus master who claims that she has long since given up hope of a better life even as she continues to dream her small dream of living in an ordinary house with a man she loves. Trapped by filial duty to her cruel father, Chiyoko actively encourages the escape of her younger sister Sumiko (Ryuko Umezono) who is in love with the ringmaster Kunio (Koji Kaga) though their father won’t let them marry. Kunio is also the instigator of the strike which is currently engulfing the circus, placing a strain on Sumiko’s conflicted loyalties as she struggles with her desire to leave the intinerant life behind. 

After the band is taken on as ringers to replace the striking musicians they also find themselves required to perform on stage, with varying degrees of success. Kokichi pleads to be given a chance to perform with a violin, even foregoing his pay as he’s warned the target audience is unlikely to find much to entertain them in a violin recital. His inexpert playing is roundly rejected by the baying mob who quickly begin throwing their rubbish at him until he’s forced to leave the stage in a moment of pure and crushing tragedy. Chiyoko tries to comfort him that she at least enjoyed the performance, but her words fail to cheer him more than superficially. He knows he’ll never go to Tokyo, or be anything more than a jinta player with only false hope to sustain him in the same way that Seiroku realises he’ll never never make peace with his past when he’s slyly conned by a 10-year-old girl he half suspected was the baby he abandoned out of economic desperation following the death of his wife. 

Yet it is in a sense romance that eventually eventually brokers resolution in the eventual implosion of Sumiko’s conflicted desires which cause her to “fall” from the trapeze, a moment of crisis daringly filmed through the use of double exposure superimposing Sumiko’s face over her POV of the men fighting in the ring. This narrowly averted tragedy apparently awakens something in her father who, she tells Kunio, only became cruel when their mother left, forcing him to relent and agree to be nicer to his employees while approving his daughter’s marriage. Yet romance cannot solve everything, and the only other romantic resolution we discover is in the roguish Torakichi (Hiroshi Uruki) who relents and accepts a woman he callously seduced and abandoned but who followed him because of the strength of a woman’s “passion”. Though we can see a connection has arisen between Chiyoko and Kokichi, it is not one which can be fulfilled, fate is pulling them in different directions. Forever a jinta player, he is pulled on to the next gig, the camera pulling back tragically from the bereaved Chiyoko, rooted to the spot as she watches her last hope walk away from her. “Life is a journey” she offers as a note of grim resignation, while knowing she’s going nowhere at all.


A Woman’s Sorrows (女人哀愁, Mikio Naruse, 1937)

Arriving perhaps in a moment preceding a major change, Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Sorrows (女人哀愁, Nyonin Aishu) finds itself on one side of a divide in which it is, paradoxically, a woman’s conservatism that is thought a barrier to her marriage. As usual slightly ahead of his times, Naruse doesn’t so much attack the idea of marriage either arranged or love, but subtly arcs out the patriarchal cage the bars of which only become visible to his conflicted heroine after she has wilfully allowed herself to be locked inside. 

Opening on location, a thriving Tokyo street scene, Naruse introduces us to the “conservative and indecisive” heroine Hiroko (Takako Irie) at her part-time job at a record store. We learn that Hiroko has recently been to an omiai marriage meeting, and that at least according to her friend she has been harbouring a longterm crush on her sensitive, progressive cousin Ryosuke. Hiroko denies having feelings for her cousin claiming that she thinks of him as a brother and that he dislikes her for being too “conservative”. One might think that a truly conservative woman wouldn’t be working in something as modern as selling records, but Hiroko is indeed a kimono-wearing holdout who has almost fully internalised the properness of the patriarchal order. Her indecisiveness, however, perhaps tells us that she isn’t quite as comfortable with it as she seems and is in a sense forcing herself to accept something she thinks she has no power to resist. 

It is also true that Hiroko’s family is poor. Despite confiding to Ryosuke that her husband gave her trouble, failing in one sense at least by dying and leaving his family with debts, Hiroko’s mother is keen that she marry and marry well. Her prospective match Shinichi is from a well to do family and has also offered to pay for the education of Hiroko’s younger brother Masao, so the marriage is undoubtedly financially advantageous if not immediately essential. “Since I cannot marry someone I love, anyone will do” Hiroko silently sighs, resigning herself to a conservative vision of a woman’s life. For his part, Ryosuke rejects Hiroko because he believes her conservatism runs so deep as to lead her to reject love as improper, that love would in fact be a barrier to her marriage which she would feel duty-bound to refuse. 

Hiroko feels that the match is in a sense too good for her, much better than she had a right to expect. Nevertheless, it’s her seeming conservatism that presents a potential problem in that it is assumed that despite working in a record shop she wouldn’t know how to dance in the modern fashion. Far from censorious, Hiroko’s mother is worried that the young girls these days all go to “dance halls” while Hiroko is quiet and demure. As it happens, Hiroko knows how to dance, though perhaps they should have been thinking about the problem from the other side in that men who like going to dance halls don’t necessarily like to go with their wives, and those looking for “conservative” women often do so because they want to lead “modern” lives outside the home. Having agreed to the marriage, Hiroko finds herself an outsider, treated as unwaged maid by her new in-laws who all exclaim how glad they are to have someone so reliable as their new daughter-in-law especially as they’ve recently disowned oldest daughter Yoko (Ranko Sawa) for running off with her lower class fiancé. 

As so often in Naruse’s cinema, modern girl Yoko acts as a mirror for the outwardly conservative Hiroko. Yoko determines to marry for love, but is actually far more conservative than she seems in that she is entirely unwilling to surrender her comfortable middle class life and continues to resent the man she married, Masuda, because he cannot keep her in the manner to which she had become accustomed. Shinichi had warned Yoko about “frivolous” men, an ironic comment seeing as we’d just heard him dismiss a woman he’d been seeing as “just a girlfriend” laying bare his rather misogynistic view of women as a means of passing time, but Masuda is the very opposite of frivolous, serious in his intentions even while Yoko rejects him solely because of his lack of socioeconomic status. Yet like Hiroko Yoko is perhaps herself also conflicted, forcing herself to reject Masuda whom she loves out of a mistaken pride that tells her it would be wrong to suffer for love when she could have done as Hiroko did and married well for a comfortable but emotionally unfulfilling life. 

Unhappy in her marriage, Hiroko claims that she could have put up with being treated as a maid but can’t stand being treated as a doll, believing herself mere decoration in Shinichi’s life. Nevertheless she continues to believe it’s her duty to “manage” as good wife, bearing her sorrow and loneliness gracefully until pushed into a moment of crisis by Yoko’s rather melodramatic love life. Overhearing the family declining to invite her to join their game of mahjong on the grounds she’s too conservative and is perfectly happy with her life of drudgery, Hiroko is stirred by Yoko’s assertion that she’d never be so “submissive” despite the fact that’s exactly what she’s been in leaving Masuda to return to her upper middle class life with the Hories who are not perhaps as grand as they seem with only the one maid and Mrs. Horie’s constant penny pinching. 

Yet the subversive conclusion isn’t so much that Hiroko begins to realise she has choices and agency after all along with the right to leave a marriage that isn’t working, but that she, temporarily at least, rejects marriage itself in favour of independence while Yoko chooses love in defying her family to return to Masuda who, by then, has done something quite foolish in a mistaken attempt to prove himself worthy of her. Rather than leaving Shinichi for Ryosuke, she tells him that she needs time to figure herself out, to “reconstruct my life by myself”, vowing to find out what is the most beautiful thing in the world so that she can see something more important in herself. It’s a startlingly progressive statement for the Japan of 1937 which is edging closer towards a kind of darkness despite the otherwise cheerfully internationalist atmosphere with its Western jazz music and record shops, dance halls, department stores, trains, and telephones, the contradictions of the age symbolised in the Horie’s awkward home with its mix of Western and Japanese furnishings. It turns out, Hiroko is the most “modern” woman of all, who ever would have thought?  


Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Three sisters with maiden heart title card“From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us” Mikio Naruse is often quoted as saying, and it’s certainly an idea which informs much of his filmmaking. 1935’s Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts (乙女ごころ三人姉妹, Otome-gokoro  Sannin-shimai), adapted from a short story by Yasunari Kawabata, is indeed a tale of the world’s cruelty as its saintly heroine attempts to escape her austere mother’s icy grip through kindness alone but finds her efforts frustrated by the world in which she lives.

Osome (Masako Tsutsumi) is the middle of three sisters raised by a cold woman (Chitose Hayashi) who forced her daughters to earn their keep by playing the shamisen on the streets of Asakusa. Oldest daughter Oren (Chikako Hosokawa) left the family some time ago after falling in love with a salaryman and hasn’t been heard from since, and while Osome is still expected to ply her trade, youngest daughter Chieko (Ryuko Umezono) has been spared, becoming a “modern girl” currently working as a dancer in a revue. Unbeknownst to her family, Chieko has also got a boyfriend – the handsome and seemingly quite wealthy Aoyama (Heihachiro Okawa) who runs into Osome by chance in the street and offers her a handkerchief to help fix her broken geta. This is not the story of a love triangle, however, so much as cruel fate accidentally bringing the sisters back together through a shared destiny.

While Chieko idly muses that it might have been better if her mother had opted for group suicide (joking with her lover about dying together as was apparently a fad at the time), Osome tearfully asks her to “please accept us as we are” but her pleas largely fall on deaf ears. Having taken in a series of apprentices, Osome’s mother continues to treat them cruelly, berating them for not picking up the shamisen, and insisting on “discipline” when she discovers one of the girls has had the temerity to buy a magazine with some of the money she herself has earned. Osome, in a characteristic act of kindness, insists she bought the magazine as a morale booster only to receive her mother’s scorn. “I put so much effort into raising you, but you still haven’t become people who’ll give an honest day’s work” she complains, commodifying them once again. “You don’t know how much easier it would be to go out and earn money myself”, she adds unconvincingly, telling her daughter she can always leave if she doesn’t like it despite having irritatedly complained about Chieko’s increasingly late return home and the possibility she may leave just like Oren did.

As Osome tells us, she and her sister were forced to play the shamisen in unsavoury Asakusa from only eight years old. As they got older, Osome was worried about the attention Oren seemed to be getting from “rough” men in the streets. Eventually Oren stopped carrying her shamisen at all and fell in with a bad crowd, only escaping when she met her husband Kosugi (Osamu Takizawa). Kosugi, however, is ill with TB and finding it difficult to hold down a job. Increasingly jealous and paranoid, he is afraid Oren will hook up with her old gangster friends and fall back into bad habits. Meanwhile, Osome is still playing her shamisen and putting up with rough treatment from the drunken clientele who sometimes try to manhandle her or make unreasonable requests. An irritated bar owner eventually knocks on a record to drown her out as if signalling her impending obsolesce.

Nevertheless, the older two sisters have largely remained traditional. Oren’s fall into the gangster underworld is signalled by a sighting of her in Western clothes, looking like a well to do young lady as Osome puts it, but once with Kosugi she soon reverts to kimono and fully embraces the role of a conventional housewife supporting her husband with all her strength. Chieko, however, is a “modern girl”, dancing in a nightclub revue and dressing exclusively in Western fashions. Some horrible boys who make a point of singing the rather vulgar song back at the girls through the window yell “modern girl” at her in the street, indicating just how shocking and unconventional her appearance was back in 1935 even in the backstreets of Asakusa. Nevertheless, Chieko appears to have found a satisfying romance with a “modern boy” in Aoyama who dresses in suits and seems to have a bit of money but is undeterred by a possible class difference and just as nice as his potential sister-in-law.

Despite Osome’s attempts to reunite the sisters, fate conspires against her. Oren hooks back up with her lowlife friends who use her in a plot to extort Aoyama while she remains completely unaware that she’s targeting her sister’s young man. Osome tries to tries to stop them but is stabbed by thugs in the process and, figuring out what’s happened, keeps Aoyama and Chieko away from the station where she has arranged to bid Oren goodbye on the last train out of Ueno. Poignantly, Oren seems happy that her sister has found someone nice, saying that she’d have liked to meet him still unaware she already has. The sisters know they likely won’t meet again, and Osome is content only in knowing that in theory at least she has saved the memory of the bond they once shared through preventing Oren’s involvement in the incident with Aoyama from coming to light.

Osome’s kindness is her undoing. Her world betrays her, she is simply too good, too pure-hearted to be able to survive in it. The three sisters struggle to overcome neglectful parenting, but their mother has at least survived if unhappily, suggesting the world is kinder to those whose hearts are colder. Oren and Chieko go their separate ways, into the past (on a train) and the future (by car), but Osome remains stubbornly in the waiting room with only the inevitable awaiting her.