A Woman’s Place (女の座, Mikio Naruse, 1962)

“A woman’s life is so dreary” laments a disappointed woman as she sits awkwardly at a funeral in Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Place (女の座, Onna no Za, AKA The Wiser Age). What exactly is “a woman’s place” in the changing post-war society? The continuing uncertainties of the age begin to burrow into the Ishikawa household as it becomes plain that the house is already divided, in several senses, as daughters and sons find themselves pulled in different directions, each of them perhaps banking on an inheritance to claim a different future. 

As the film opens, the sons and daughters of the Ishikawa family have been sent telegrams to come home at once because dad is at death’s door. Thankfully, that turns out to be premature. All he’s done is put his back out overdoing it in the garden by trying to lift a big rock in defiance of his age. Oldest daughter Matsuyo (Aiko Mimasu), who runs a boarding house, is quite put out to have rushed over for nothing, but everyone is obviously relieved that there turned out to be nothing to worry about after all. Widowed daughter-in-law Yoshiko (Hideko Takamine) realises that she needs to wire Michiko (Keiko Awaji) who moved to Kyushu when she got married that there’s no need to come, but she later turns up anyway along with her goofy husband Masaaki (Tatsuya Mihashi), claiming they’ve decided to make the trip a kind of honeymoon though it seems obvious to everyone that there must be reasons they seem intent on overstaying their welcome. 

“They depend on us, everyone does when they return home” mother/step-mother Aki (Haruko Sugimura) chuckles as Matsuyo and only remaining son Jiro (Keiju Kobayashi) pocket some paper towels from the family shop on their way out. Everyone is indeed depending on the family, not least for a clue as to where they stand as much as for a permanent place to return to. Three daughters of marriageable age still live at home. The oldest, Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue), the daughter of patriarch Kinjiro’s (Chishu Ryu) first wife, has renounced the possibility of marriage and has made a career for herself as an ikebana teacher, a traditionally respectable occupation for “independent” women. In her 30s, she has become cruel and embittered, sniping at her sisters and always smirking away in a corner somewhere being aggressively miserable (nobody in the family seems to like Umeko very much, but still they accept her). Later she offers a sad, surprisingly romantic explanation for her decision in her unrequited love for a middle school classmate who died in the war, but is in someway revived by an unexpected attraction to a young man Matsuyo brings to the house who claims to be the infant boy Aki was forced to give up when she left her former husband’s family and married Kinjiro. 

The unexpected reappearance of Musumiya (Akira Takarada) destabilises the family across several levels, firstly in highlighting Aki’s awkward status as a second wife and step-mother to the two oldest children, and then by inciting a false romantic rivalry between the widowed Yoshiko and the unmarried Umeko. Umeko at one point cruelly describes Yoshiko as the only “outsider” in the household, viewing her connection to them now that her husband has died solely through the lens of being the mother of the only male grandchild, Ken (Kenzaburo Osawa). Yoshiko, only 36 years old, is repeatedly urged to remarry, but she like Aki would be forced to leave Ken behind if she did, though he is now a teenager and perhaps old enough not to feel abandoned. Ken in fact joins in encouraging his mother to find a second husband, but partly because she is always nagging him to study harder (something which will have have tragic, unexpected consequences). Yoshiko’s “place” in the household is therefore somewhat liminal, part of the family and yet not, because her status depends on solely on her relationships to others rather than blood. 

Nevertheless, Yoshiko is clearly in charge as we witness all of the other women disturbing her while she’s cooking to enquire after missing items, whether the bath is ready, or to attend to something in the store. Umeko has built her own smaller annex on another part of the property and mostly keeps to herself, while the two younger daughters busy themselves with a series of romantic subplots. Despite her sister Matsuyo’s eye-rolling that she should “forget about working and get married”, Natsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) is trying to find another job after being laid off when the company she worked for went bankrupt. Her brother, meanwhile, is experiencing the opposite problem in that it’s impossible to find and keep delivery staff at his ramen shop and he desperately needs help because his wife is pregnant again. Natsuko is convinced to “help out” though it’s clear that working in a ramen shop wasn’t what she had in mind, but it does bring her into contact with an eccentric friend of her sister Yukiko’s (Yuriko Hoshi) while she works on the box office of a nearby cinema. 

A crisis occurs when Natsuko is presented with the prospect of an accelerated arranged marriage to a man who took a liking to her while working at the company which went bust and has since got a job which requires him to relocate to Brazil. The ramen shop guy, Aoyama (Yosuke Natsuki), meanwhile is also getting a transfer but only to the top of Mount Fuji. Natsuko is torn, but also wonders if Yukiko actually wants Aoyama herself and only tried to set them up as a sort of test. In any case, both of these younger women also feel that their “place” is defined by marriage and their status conferred by their husbands even if they are exercising a personal preference in their choice, Yukiko’s in romance while Natsuko’s is perhaps a little more calculation in that she knew and liked her suitor but would not go so far as to call it “love”. 

In her own strange way, Umeko may be the most radical of the women in that she has attempted to define her own place through rejecting marriage and making enough money to buy her own home (albeit still on the family property) in a kind of independence, later deciding that perhaps she does want marriage after all but only on her own terms. Unfortunately, she is drawn to Musumiya whose presence poses a threat to the family on several levels, the most serious being that he is quickly exposed as a conman guilting Aki into assisting him financially while also trying some kind of car sale scam on the smitten Umeko who wants to add to her independence through learning to drive. Musumiya, it seems, prefers Yoshiko and his affection may well be genuine, but she is trapped once again. While she and Aki privately express their doubts about Musumiya, they have no desire to hurt Umeko’s feelings and cannot exactly come out and say that he is no good seeing as he is Aki’s son. Yoshiko stoically keeps the secret, perhaps also attracted to Musumiya but loyal to the Ishikawas and wanting no trouble from such a duplicitous man. Still, Umeko regards Yoshiko’s attempts to discourage her as “jealousy” and wastes no time embarrassing them both in a nasty public altercation. 

While all of this going on, there has been some talk that the shop may be compulsory purchased to make way for an Olympic road, and each of the Ishikawa children is eagerly awaiting their share of the compensation money, not least Michiko and her feckless husband who turns out to have fled Kyushu after getting fired from his job for assaulting a client. The “heir”, technically is Ken as the only male grandchild and Yoshiko’s tenuous status in the household is entirely conferred on her as his mother. When that disappears, her “place” is uncertain. Most of the others are for kicking her out, she’s not a “real” member of the family and so deserves none of the money with only Natsuko stopping to defend her. But, as so often, the widowed daughter-in-law turns out to be the only filial child. Mum and dad feel themselves displaced in their own home, somehow feeling they must stand aside, but it turns out they have plans of their own and Yoshiko is very much included. They want to take her with them, and if one day she decides to marry again then that’s perfectly OK and they will even provide a dowry for her as if she were one of their own daughters. 

“We have many children but they only think of themselves” Kinjiro laments, “let’s not worry about them and live peacefully by ourselves”. It’s easy to see their decision as a strategic retreat, as if they’re being left behind by a future they cannot be a part of, but it’s also in some ways an escape from the increasingly selfish post-war society. Yoshiko may not have actively chosen her “place” but she does at least have one and reserves the right to choose somewhere else in the future. The older Ishikawas choose to be happy on their own, freeing their children and giving them their blessing so long as they’re “doing their best”. It’s a strangely upbeat conclusion for a Naruse film, if perhaps undercut with a mild sense of resignation, but nevertheless filled with a hope for a happier future and an acknowledgement that “family” can work but only when it is defined by genuine feeling and not merely by blood. 


The H-Man (美女と液体人間, Ishiro Honda, 1958)

H-man
Toho produced a steady stream of science fiction movies in the ‘50s, each with some harsh words directed at irresponsible scientists whose discoveries place the whole world in peril. The H-man (美女と液体人間, Bijo to Ekitainingen), arriving in 1958, finds the genre at something of an interesting juncture but once again casts nuclear technology as the great evil, corrupting and eroding humanity with a barely understood power. Science may have conjured up the child which will one day destroy us, robbing mankind of its place as the dominant species. Still, we’ve never particularly needed science to destroy ourselves and so this particularly creepy mystery takes on a procedural bent infused with classic noir tropes and filled with the seedier elements of city life from gangsters and the drugs trade to put upon show girls with lousy boyfriends who land them in unexpected trouble.

Misaki (Hisaya Itou) is not a man who would likely have been remembered. A petty gangster on the fringes of the criminal underworld, just trying to get by in the gradually improving post-war economy, he’s one of many who might have found himself on the wrong side of a gangland battle and wound up just another name in a file. However, Misaki gets himself noticed by disappearing in the middle of a drugs heist leaving all of his clothes behind. The police immediatetely start hassling his cabaret singer girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), who knows absolutely nothing but is deeply worried about what may have happened to her no good boyfriend. The police are still working on the assumption Misaki has skipped town, but a rogue professor, Masada (Kenji Sahara), thinks the disappearance may be linked to a strange nuclear incident…..

Perhaps lacking in hard science, the H-Man posits that radiation poisoning can fundamentally change the molecular structure of a living being, rendering it a kind of sentient sludge. This particular hypothesis is effectively demonstrated by doing some very unpleasant looking things to a frog but it seems humans too can be broken down into their component parts to become an all powerful liquid being. The original outbreak is thought to have occurred on a boat out at sea and the scientists still haven’t figured out why the creature has come back to Tokyo though their worst fear is that the H-man, as they’re calling him, retains some of his original memories and has tried to return “home” for whatever reason.

The sludge monster seeps and crawls, working its way in where it isn’t wanted but finally rematerialises in humanoid form to do its deadly business. Once again handled by Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects work is extraordinary as the genuinely creepy slime makes its slow motion assault before fire breaks out on water in an attempt to eradicate the flickering figures of the newly reformed H-men. The scientists think they’ve come up with a way to stop the monstrous threat, but they can’t guarantee there will never be another – think what might happen in a world covered in radioactivity! The H-man may just be another stop in human evolution.

Despite the scientists’ passionate attempts to convince them, the police remain reluctant to consider such an outlandish solution, preferring to work the gangland angle in the hopes of taking out the local drug dealers. The drug lord subplot is just that, but Misaki most definitely inhabited the seamier side of the post-war world with its seedy bars and petty crooks lurking in the shadows, pistols at the ready under their mud splattered macs. Chikako never quite becomes the generic “woman in peril” despite being directly referenced in the Japanese title, though she is eventually kidnapped by very human villains, finding herself at the mercy of violent criminality rather than rogue science. Science wants to save her, Masada has fallen in love, but their relationship is a subtle and mostly one sided one as Chikako remains preoccupied over the fate of the still missing Misaki.

Even amidst the fear and chaos, Honda finds room for a little song and dance with Chikako allowed to sing a few numbers at the bar while the other girls dance around in risqué outfits. The H-man may be another post-war anti-nuke picture from the studio which brought you Godzilla but its target is wider. Nuclear technology is not only dangerous and unpredictable, it has already changed us, corrupting body and soul. The H-men may very well be that which comes after us, but if that is the case it is we ourselves who have sown the seeds of our destruction in allowing our fiery children to break free of our control.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.