Ikiru (生きる, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

The Japanese economy may have embarked on a path towards recovery thanks to the stimulus of the Korean War, but in the early 1950s many might have thought it too soon to ask if survival in itself was enough yet this is exactly what disillusioned civil servant Kenji Watanabe finds himself asking after receiving the devastating news that he has advanced stomach cancer and year at most to live. “To live” is apt translation of Akira Kurosawa’s intensely moving existential melodrama, Ikiru (生きる), which tackles the compromises of the salaryman dream head on along with those of the contradictions of the sometimes dehumanising post-war society. 

As the opening voice over reveals to to us, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is man who died long ago or perhaps has never truly been alive. In some senses, he is nothing more than an embodiment of the seal he uses to stamp documents day in day out, a mere piston in an ever turning machine of relentless bureaucracy. A young woman, Miss Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), working in the Public Affairs department loudly reads out a joke someone has written about their boss, Watanabe, who has taken not a single day’s holiday in 30 years suggesting that it’s less that he fears city hall will grind to a halt without him than they’ll suddenly figure out city hall has no need of him at all. The irony is city hall does indeed grind to a halt in Watanabe’s absence as he, unthinkably, fails to turn up for work for days on end as the papers pile ever higher on his desk. “Nothing moves here without his seal” one of the workers admits, bewildered by this sudden break with protocol while salivating over its implications in the possibility that Watanabe’s chair may soon be empty. 

Yet Watanabe’s crisis is that he’s realised he’s wasted his life on a pointless bureaucratic career that’s done little more than keep a roof over his head. Even the roof is a fairly modest one and it’s clear that his grown up son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) considers him to be a stingy old miser, unable to understand why he’s never spent so much as a penny on himself and lives in a kind of self-imposed austerity. Perhaps to Watanabe this is what constitutes properness. He’s done everything he was supposed to do, got a steady job at city hall and eventually became the head of department, but now he feels foolish and lonely. Mitsuo and his wife seem to resent him and talk openly about their plans to use their inheritance, along with Watanabe’s retirement bonus, for a downpayment on a “modern” home the polar opposite of the pre-war townhouse where the family continue to live. 

Mitsuo and Kazue (Kyoko Seki) are perhaps emblems of the increasingly empty consumerism of the post-war era, emotionally disconnected from Watanabe and seeking only the flashy and new. Miss Odagiri, the young woman from work, immediately says that she’d love to live in a home like Watanabe’s rather than the crowded multiple occupancy flat she currently inhabits with her family. Cheerful and outgoing, Odagiri is on the other hand a symbol of a new generation that wants something more out of life than simple material comfort and might even be willing to trade it for a small amount of happiness. Having worked at city hall for all of 18 months, she decides that she just can’t take it anymore and is quitting to get a job in a factory making toy rabbits that she says allow her to feel as if she’s making friends with all the babies in Japan. 

To that extent, Watanabe is himself also a baby craving Odagiri’s company admitting that he envies her youth and vitality in realising he squandered his own and will never get it back. How uncomfortable it must be for her, their final meeting in a restaurant sandwiched between a loving couple and teenage girl’s birthday party as Watanabe, gaunt and shrunken, claws at the air and begs her to help him live. Yet even within the grotesquery the tone is ironic, the strains of “Happy Birthday” accompanying Watanabe down the stairs as a the high school climbs up to meet her friends signalling his (re)birth as a man with purpose and determination. Just as Odagiri had found meaning in the rabbit, Watanabe finds it deciding to get a playground built over a post-war swamp in the slums filled with raw sewage and mosquitos that left the local children ill. 

Yet children’s parks aren’t particularly profitable which is presumably why the petition to build one had been kicked all round city hall in the infernal wheel of bureaucracy in which Watanabe too is trapped. “You call this democracy?” one of the women bringing the petition asks, taking the clerk to task complaining that all they do is fob them off insisting it’s someone else’s responsibility to help while determined only to guard their own turf. “You’re not supposed to do anything at city hall” someone ironically adds, “the best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all”. Watanabe did nothing at all for 30 years and it got him nowhere, his dedication to his job disrupting his relationship with his son though Watanabe is ironically one of the most emotional men and engaged fathers seen on screen in the post-war era. 

After his death, in the park he helped build for which the deputy mayor has taken credit, his colleagues put him on trial at the wake trying to work out why he did it and whether or not he even knew he was dying seeing as he told no one close him not even the son whom he felt he could no longer trust. They deny his role while both praising and condemning his passion as somehow improper, disrupting the dispassionate rhythms of the bureaucratic machine with human emotion. It was only coincidence, they say. The deputy mayor wanted an election and the yakuza wanted to turn the swamp into a red light district. “Did he think he could just build a park?” someone adds, bemused by his effrontery as a man from Public Affairs straying into the Parks Department’s territory. You have to protect your turf after all. Finally moved by Watanabe’s last ditch bid to make his life mean something, to feel alive and know he has lived, the the drunken salarymen, all but one who retreats to look at Watanabe’s photo above the altar, swear to follow his example. 

But of course the bureaucratic wheel keeps turning, another dangerous sewage problem diverted to another department continuing the literal pollution of the capitalistic post-war society. A kind of ghost story, Kurosawa lights Shimura from below, shadows cast across his gaunt face even by his “rakish” new hat while his huge eyes have a somehow haunted, grotesque quality filled with hungry desperation. Yet it’s to childhood that Watanabe eventually returns, “perfectly happy” sitting on a swing singing a song from his youth about the price age while surrounded by snow and at last painfully, absurdly alive. 


Ikiru screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 4th & 15th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955)

Two decades into the new century, Japanese society finds itself gripped by a population crisis. Supposedly “sexless”, young people constrained by a stagnant economy and a series of outdated social conventions have increasingly turned away from marriage and children to the extent that the birth rate is currently at the lowest it’s ever been. How strange it is then to revisit Yuzo Kawashima’s baby boom paranoia comedy Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Ai no Onimotsu) in which the very same anxieties now expressed for the declining population are expressed for its reverse – that it will damage the economy, that it is the result of a moral decline, and that society as we know it is on the brink of destruction. 

All of these arguments are made by the Minister for Health, Araki (So Yamamura), as he tries to chair a committee meeting put together to find a solution to the baby boom crisis. The government policy he’s putting his name to is a birth control advocacy programme coupled with greater education to discourage couples from having so many children. Some object on the grounds that encouraging the use of birth control will inevitably lead to promiscuity and sexual abandon, which is why Araki’s government intends to limit its use only to married couples to be used for proper family planning. A feminist politician challenges him again, first citing the go forth and multiply bits from the bible to imply she objects to birth control on religious grounds only to trap Araki by reminding him that that is exactly what the government encouraged people to do during the wartime years. She thinks limiting birth control to married couples is little more than thinly veiled morality policing which will fail to help those really in need, suggesting that if this is the road they want to go down perhaps they should think about relaxing abortion laws so that those who become pregnant without the means to raise a child will have another option. Predictably, Araki is not quite in favour, but takes her point. In any case, events in his personal life are about to overtake him. 

The first crisis is that his son, Jotaro (Tatsuya Mihashi), is in a secret relationship with Araki’s secretary Saeko (Mie Kitahara), who has now become pregnant and is quite smug about it because Jotaro will finally have to sort things out with his family so they can marry. There are several reasons why he’s been dragging his feet: firstly, Saeko is a very good secretary and it’s customary for women to stop working when they marry (though as we later find out Jotaro is a progressive type who has no intention of stopping Saeko working if she wants to even after they marry and have children), secondly, his mother Ranko (Yukiko Todoroki) and younger sister Sakura (Tomoko Ko) are old fashioned and may feel marrying a secretary is beneath him, and thirdly he’s just a lackadaisical sort who doesn’t get round to things unless someone gives him a push. Sakura has an additional concern in that she’s engaged to an upperclass dandy from Kyoto (Frankie Sakai) and worries his family might object if they know that Jotaro has undergone a shotgun wedding to someone from the “servant class”. Araki’s oldest daughter, Kazuko (Emiko Azuma), is happily married to a gynaecologist (Yoshifumi Tajima) but ironically has been unable to conceive after six years of marriage. All of which is capped by the intense irony that his own wife at the age of 48 may be expecting a late baby of their own. 

The press is going to have a field day. Araki, for all his faults, is a surprisingly progressive guy, a moderate in the conservative party but one who, worryingly, doesn’t seem to believe in much of what he says as a minister of government, merely doing what it is he thinks he’s supposed to do. It’s perhaps this level of hypocrisy that Jotaro so roundly rejects, insisting he wants neither a career in the family’s pharmaceuticals company (which, it’s worth saying, also produces the birth control Araki’s policy seeks to promote), or a career in politics, and insists on being his own man. Tinkering with various bits of modern technology, he eventually gets a job in research and development of cheap TV sets, signalling his allegiance to the new all while dressing in kimono to visit kabuki clubs with Saeko. Saeko too is a modern woman – she speaks several languages and has a university degree, supporting herself independently even though she is “only” secretary albeit to a cabinet minister. Sakura, a more traditional sort, originally looks down her for being all those things, but later comes to a kind of admiration especially when she finds herself in need of advice from another modern woman. Jotaro’s mother, however, only comes around when she hires a detective who discovers Saeko might be posh after all. 

“Children have their own worlds to live in” one of Araki’s grownup kids later emphases, unwilling to rely their father for money or career advancement, they want to make their own way in the world. Jotaro, a kind man and something of a socialist, wonders if they shouldn’t be using some of this money the government has earmarked for defence on social welfare, suggesting perhaps that’s the best way to deal with the population crisis rather than pointlessly trying to police desire. Burden of Love was released in 1955, which is immediately before Japan instituted its anti-prostitution law doing away with the Akasen system that existed under the American occupation. Araki goes to visit an establishment in the red light district and declares himself horrified, but is unable to come up with a good solution when the women working there point out that they support entire families who will starve without their income. He may have a point that the pimp’s identification of himself as a social worker is disingenuous because he profits from the exploitation of women, but Araki’s later visit to a tavern staffed by geisha raises a series of questions about a continuing double standard. 

Araki exposes his own privilege when he tells Jotaro that he’d do anything for a single slice of bread before he’d ever do “that”, which is ignoring the fact that it’s very unlikely he’d ever have to consider it. Araki’s father, himself a retired politician, is also a fairly progressive sort who actively gets involved in the kids’ nefarious plans to get around their parents so they can marry the people the want when they want to marry them, while Araki remains largely preoccupied with his political position, even suggesting to his wife, despite what he said in the committee meeting, that she get an abortion to spare him the embarrassment caused by increasing the population while proposing a series of population control policies. Ranko is distraught because to her the child is the product of their love, even if to Araki it is also a “burden”, but being a traditional sort thinks first of her husband and is minded to do as he says. The younger generation think and feel differently. They want to make decisions for themselves, not just about what they do but who they love and how they live. The lesson is perhaps that this isn’t something to be overly worried about. Children are the “burden” of love, but we carry them together, and it’s a happier society that is content to figure it out rather than trying  to pointlessly police forces beyond its control. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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 Moon Has Risen (月は上りぬ, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955)

the moon has risen bookletOne of the most celebrated actresses of the 1930s, Kinuyo Tanaka’s post-war career took a couple of unexpected turns. In 1949, she was one of a small number of performers sent to tour America as a cultural ambassador but the reception upon her return was anything but welcoming as her old fans openly criticised her “Americanised” ways. In the same year, she ended her long standing contract with Shochiku to go freelance which meant she could pick and choose her projects from across a wider field of directors and actors she wanted to work with. What she wanted, however, was somewhat unheard of – she wanted to direct. The second woman to ever helm a feature film in Japan, Kinuyo Tanaka made her behind the camera debut in 1953 with the extremely impressive melodrama Love Letter which was penned by the ever supportive Keisuke Kinoshita. Tanaka’s directing career was almost derailed by her good friend and long time collaborator Kenji Mizoguchi who, for reasons which remain unclear, attempted to block her acceptance into the directors guild of Japan (ending their working relationship in the process), but after eventually joining Nikkatsu as a director she was able to begin work on her second film – The Moon Has Risen (月は上りぬ, Tsuki wa Noborinu), ironically enough scripted buy Shochiku stalwart Yasujiro Ozu.

In the classic Ozu mould, The Moon Has Risen is a family drama but Tanaka pulls the focus a little to home in on the central three sisters. Cared for by widowed patriarch Mokichi (Chishu Ryu), the Asai family consists of widowed oldest sister Chizuru (Hisako Yamane), reserved middle sister Ayako (Yoko Sugi), and the exuberant youngest sister Setsuko (Mie Kitahara) who is in a kind of relationship with the currently out of work intellectual, Shoji (Shoji Yasui). When an old school friend of Shoji’s, Amamiya (Ko Mishima), pays a surprise visit whilst he’s in the area to take a look at a broadcast tower, Setsuko sees it as an opportunity to set him up with her shy sister Ayako once Amamiya makes a few wistful remarks about remembering her from their school days.

The first part of the film stays firmly in the realms of comedy as Setsuko sets her plan in motion. She and Shoji do everything they can to find out whether there is any romantic possibility between the pair – baiting Amamiya to come to a non-existent clandestine meeting and then timing him to see how long he’ll wait before giving up, and convincing each of them that the other has something very important to say which can only be said under the romantic light of a full moon. Youthful as she is Setsuko’s plans largely backfire but then the moonlight gets inside them and something shifts.

The courtship of Ayako and Amamiya is quiet and restrained. They keep their romance a secret, communicating with each other through secret codes leading to poignant passages from the Manyoshu – the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, which everyone in the family is desperate to figure out but can’t quite get to grips with. Chizuru can’t decide if this painfully innocent path to romantic connection is very old fashioned or very modern but it certainly captures something of the cultural shift of post-war society – the marriage is “arranged” in a sense with Setsuko as a matchmaker but it’s also self determined as Ayako and Amamiya come to recognise their mutual feelings for each other, embrace their love match, and make their own independent decisions to marry.

Modern girl Setsuko has also made a proactive decision in her attachment to Shoji but their shared matchmaking quest eventually drives a wedge between them. As she later puts it, they spent so long worrying about Ayako that they forgot all about worrying about themselves. Shoji’s problem is a common one in being both out of work and soft hearted as he proves when he finds a job but decides to recommend a needier friend for it instead. A blazing row nearly threatens to end things but, again, the pair rely on gentle, well meaning advice from their elders and eventually realise they’re about to make themselves miserable in a fit of pigheadedness.

Though Tanaka mimics the veteran director with iconic Ozu-inspired compositions and frequent use of pillow shots, her emotional canvas is more direct than her mentor’s stoical resignation. Steering clear of Ozu’s trademark tatami mat view and preference for direct to camera speech, Tanaka’s lensing is shier and avoids faces altogether to focus on the physical. She lingers on clasped hands, or on uncertain feet, as they hug the ground unwilling to stay or go. Having ignored her for most of the film, Tanaka turns back to Chizuru whose lonely widowhood seems like a forgone conclusion, as her eyes brim with tears on hearing her perceptive father’s acknowledgement of a possible new suitor.

Mokichi’s inevitable loneliness is background rather than foreground as his daughters take centerstage, leaving him to wonder why young people prefer the “dusty, dirty Tokyo”, to his peaceful Nara but in any case he remains perfectly content for each of them to find their own path to wherever it is they’re supposed to be. In her attempt to film Ozu’s script with Ozu’s camera, The Moon has Risen may seem like a step backwards for Tanaka following the more inventive Love Letter but even while working within such constraints she manages outdo the master in her essential emotional immediacy and well observed depiction of lives and loves post-war women.