Travelling Actors (旅役者, Mikio Naruse, 1940)

“You can’t have a horse without the ass” admits a travelling actor, inwardly preparing to meet his obsolescence. Anything’s an art if you care to practice it, but there is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. A masterclass in tragicomedy, Naruse’s 1940 character study Travelling Actors (旅役者, Tabi Yakusha) finds two ends of a pantomime horse about to be torn apart when their act is unwittingly destroyed by a resentful punter whose drunken attempt to escape his sense of humiliation in being tricked by unscrupulous promoters leaves their horse without a head. 

Hyoroku (Kamatari Fujiwara) prides himself on being the “Danjuro of pantomime horses”, performing with the younger Senpei (Kan Yanagiya) who looks up to him as if he really were a great master of the arts. The guys are part of a group of travelling players touring rural Japan performing traditional skits for an audience starved of entertainment. The troupe is not, however, above exploitative business practices, proudly advertising the appearance of “Kikugoro” but neglecting to mention that it’s not the famous one, just another guy with the same name. Meanwhile, someone has to foot the bill for “producing” the show wherever the actors land, leading the exploitative producers to convince a local barber (Ko Mihashi) to invest, hoping to get a little free publicity because he’s known to be the town gossip and can spread the word through his shop. The plan backfires, however, when he travels to the station to see them arrive and immediately realises they are not a fancy acting company from Tokyo but a bunch of ragged bumpkins. Feeling thoroughly fed up, he demands to be allowed to perform in the show as the price of his silence before getting black out drunk and passing out backstage, crushing the papier-mâché horse’s head in his desperation to find somewhere soft to land. 

As “Kikugoro” points out, the “guy who plays the pantomime horse is really picky” so they know they’re in for some trouble as soon as he finds out what’s happened to his head. In fact, Hyoroku was just in the middle of some remodelling, trying to make the head look even more realistic to improve his art. While the barber is destroying his life’s work, Hyoroku and Senpei are drinking with a pair of geishas who are pretending to be interested in Hyoroku’s mini lecture about his process in which he tells them all about how he’s really captured the true essence of the horse through patiently honing his craft all these long years. 

There might be something in that, that Hyoroku is a workhorse of the theatre now more beast than man. Just occasionally, his horsey mannerisms come out in his offstage life, scratching the floor with his feet or pacing the room like a penned in pony. Though there are other sides of him which are painfully human. He makes a point of belittling Senpei in front of the geishas, insulting his art to assert his place as the teacher, always keen to keep his pupil in his place. But as Senpei points out, you can’t have a horse without the ass, and his “art” is no less important than Hyoroku’s. Continuing to take himself way too seriously, Hyoroku refuses to perform with the broken head, flatly objecting to the suggestion of substituting one from the fox costumes because he can’t get into character when his head’s in the wrong place. 

Faced with the prospect of cancelling the show, the producers come up with a radical idea – hiring a real horse. In a still more ironic touch, they even sell this horse who is making his stage debut as a star in his own right, only realising the dangers of their situation when it urinates right in the middle of the act. Weirdly, that only makes the horse a hit and convinces the troupe they’re on to a winner, which is bad news for the boys because who wants to see two guys in an ugly costume when they could be gazing at the real thing. The days of the pantomime horse are ending, but where does that leave a “great master” like Hyoroku who has spent his life becoming more horsey than a horse? Kicked out of the inn and forced to sleep backstage as non-performers, the guys eventually suffer the indignity of being offered jobs as stable boys, mere servants to the star who has replaced them. 

In an unguarded moment, Hyoroku and Senpei reflect on where they are as a young man in a soldier’s uniform leads a patient horse off to war. “That could be us” they sigh, though it’s not clear if they mean the man or the horse, before going back to horsing around eating shaved ice and flirting with the store owner. “I’m just the horse’s ass”, Senpei laments, secretly hoping to become a “real” actor at last, only for Hyoroku to uncharacteristically start encouraging him before dragging him off on another crazy adventure. Putting the fox’s head on to make a point, Hyoroku disappears into the role, chasing his rival right out of town, dragging his back legs behind him as he goes. 


Hideko, the Bus Conductor (秀子の車掌さん, Mikio Naruse, 1941)

vlcsnap-2019-12-28-21h47m57s539It’s true enough that we might not have enough extant material from the pre-war and wartime eras to be as selective as some might accuse of us of being on realising that the directors we tend to remember are the ones we see as resisting. Though there were a fair few who managed simply to steer clear of the prevailing ideology, most skirted their way around the demands of the censors board by embracing the kinds of themes they could would work with. In Hideko, the Bus Conductor (秀子の車掌さん, Hideko no Shasho-san) Naruse pushes in a slightly different direction, retreating almost entirely from the troubles of the contemporary era into an idyllic vision of pastoral Japan.

Echoing Mr. Thank You, he opens with a POV shot of bus travelling a rural road accompanied by jaunty music. Neatly undercutting the cheerful atmosphere with ironic absurdity, we then cut to bus conductress Okoma (Hideko Takamine) announcing the next stop to an entirely empty bus. The problem is, the bus Okoma and the driver, Sonoda (Kamatari Fujiwara), operate is old, slow, and dirty. A new company, Kaihatsu, recently launched with shiny new buses that are cleaner and faster, if a little more expensive. Unsurprisingly, most people prefer to travel with Kaihatsu, meaning the only passengers waiting for Okoma’s bus are the kind that don’t have much money or are looking for different kinds of service – e.g. transporting live chickens or unusually large amounts of bags.

A radio programme recommended by her landlady gives Okoma an idea to boost business – performing as a kind of tour guide reading out interesting facts about the local area to entertain the passengers. Unfortunately, no one can quite think of any interesting facts or local landmarks in this tiny rural backwater. Nevertheless, Okoma and Sonoda are determined to give it a go, eventually obtaining permission from the decidedly laissez-faire boss who spends most of his days guzzling ramune and eating kakegori. To make sure the service is professional, they enlist the services of a local writer, Ikawa (Daijiro Natsukawa), whose notebook Okoma once returned when he left it on the bus. Weirdly, he doesn’t even want paying because he enjoys writing this kind of thing, and even coaches Okoma on how to get the cutest accent to really attract those customers with adorable local charm (even though Okoma is very proud to be thought of as nicely spoken young lady with nary an accent at all).

Of course, in true Naruse style, it’s not quite as idyllic as it seems. Most of the people we meet are poor and struggling, that’s why they’re taking this bus and not Kaihatsu’s. Even so, they’re all pleasant and polite, not even minding when Okoma asks the driver to stop by her house so she can chat with her mother, giving her a kimono she’s bought as a present (that her mum tells her off for spending her money on) and swapping her worn out cloth shoes for a classic pair of geta in which she seems to be more comfortable. At one stage, a chicken escapes from the bus and they stop to catch it, timetable be damned. Mind you, there don’t even really seem to be specific stops on this strangely occasional service. In need of passengers, Okoma and Sonoda seem content to stop and pick up random passersby who might be in search of a lift, taking them to wherever they might want to to go.

That might be one reason explaining why Okoma’s landlady is keen to warn her that she’s heard the bus company is no good, it’s just a front for some kind of unspecified shadiness. The truth, however, is more that the boss seems to be the feckless sort who enjoys being bossy but has no idea how to run a business. Distracted by Okoma’s monologue, Sonoda starts forgetting to stop and pick people up and eventually has to slam on the brakes when a child runs out into the street. While they’re checking on the kid, the bus rolls back over the verge, injuring Okoma and landing in farmland. Reassured that no-one has been “seriously” hurt (he’s not getting sued), the boss is then more worried about the insurance, seeing as it doesn’t cover him if the engine was running while they were stopped. Even though Sonoda explains that there’s no damage except maybe a scratch on the side, the boss suggests he scupper the engine and smash the windows so they can claim. They need a better bus, otherwise the company will have to close.

Earlier on, Sonoda and Okoma had joked about a popular slogan “When a country gets confused, loyal subjects appear”. Sonoda rolls his eyes a little and calls it “bombast”. They might not object to adding a bit about birds singing for the emperor’s long reign to their monologue, but it’s plain they aren’t going to go along with something they think is wrong because the boss says it’s a good idea. Sonoda is a little conflicted to begin with, talking it over with Ikawa who acts as the slightly patronising voice of city sophistication, he realises that if he follows the boss’ orders and lies he’ll not only be cheating the rest of society but himself too in doing something he knows to be immoral. Both he and Okoma vow they’ll quit rather than be forced into dishonesty, after all, says Okoma, there are plenty of other jobs (or perhaps not, in real terms, but still there is a choice). Suddenly, they feel quite cheerful, buoyed by their sense of moral righteousness.

An intervention from Ikawa saves their jobs, but this is still a Naruse film in which the world will always betray us, and so Okoma and Sonoda cheerfully continue their tour guiding business little knowing that the boss has gone bust and sold the bus. It might be going too far to say that Naruse envisages a fiery crash, a rude awakening for Okoma and Sonoda who will be left with only the cold comfort that they stood up against authoritarianism when it all goes to hell, but the subtle allegory is all but unmissable. Absurdly cheerful, and just a little bit depressing if you stop to think about it, Hideko the Bus Conductor is a charming jaunt through rural ‘40s Japan filled with salt of the earth types just trying to muddle through while the big bosses put their feet up and pop ramune marbles all day long without a care in the world.


The Girl in the Rumor (噂の娘, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

vlcsnap-2019-12-21-23h50m32s752The world was changing in 1935, but not everyone was swept away by the fickle tides of modernity. The heroine of Naruse’s 1935 drama The Girl in the Rumor (噂の娘, Uwasa no Musume) is like many of his leading ladies betrayed by the world in which she lives, yet she’s also an encapsulation of the conflicts of the age, at once fiercely traditional and personally progressive while her “modern girl” sister is as selfish and judgemental as any of the bright young things who serve as extreme examples of the risks of Western individualism.

Kunie (Sachiko Chiba), an unmarried young woman, works in her family’s sake shop which is currently struggling to make ends meet. While the guys in the barbers opposite complain that the place has gone downhill since grandpa’s days, the old man himself has begun to worry that there’s something not quite right about their produce. In order to keep the shop going, there’s some talk that Kunie may marry the son of a wealthy family, but her father Kenkichi (Ko Mihashi) is against the idea. He married into his wife’s family and the marriage was intensely unhappy so he is mindful that the same fate doesn’t befall his daughter. His wife now long dead, Kenkichi is free to be more open about his longstanding affair with a bar owner, Oyo (Toshiko Ito), which produced a daughter, Kimiko (Ryuko Umezono), who was raised by Kenkichi and his legal wife and has no idea her birth was illegitimate. Kimiko, unlike her sister, has become a “modern girl”, dressing in Western fashions, listening to jazz, and staying out late going to parties. The trouble starts when Kunie decides to take her sister with her to the omiai for moral support and it becomes obvious that Sato (Heihachiro Okawa) is a bit of a “modern boy” who has lots more in common with the vivacious Kimiko and decides to break protocol by telling the go-between that he’d rather have her instead.

This move comes as a total blindside to the girls’ uncle who arranged the meeting. “The marriage proposal’s turned into something really weird” he tells Kenkichi over the phone while the two men try to work out what the best course of action is. The uncle seems to think it might be a good move to carry on the negotiations with Kimiko instead, after all Kunie is basically running the store so it would be more convenient to keep her around. Kenkichi is unconvinced. He knows Kimiko doesn’t really approve of all this old fashioned arranged marriage business, and to be honest he doesn’t seem to like her much so isn’t keen on talking to her about it but can’t rely on his usual trick of getting Kunie to do it because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings by letting her know that Sato doesn’t fancy her and has asked her sister out instead.

Kimiko certainly is a “modern girl” and superficially proto-feminist. She mocks her sister’s traditionalism and criticises her for blaming “their” mother for the failure of their parents’ marriage, thinking that she is simply unable to move past the patriarchal mindset and used to blaming everything on the woman. Little knowing that Oyu is her mother, she rejects Kunie’s plan to have her come and live with them as new maternal presence, claiming that she has only contempt for mistresses and thereby exposing herself as being, ironically enough, more judgemental than her superficially conventional sister. Kunie may be “traditional” in her outlook, but she is also empathetic and understanding. It seems her mother may not have been an easy woman, and what she most wants is to repair her family by bringing Oyo into the fold in her “rightful” place at her father’s side. Despite her insistence on her own freedom, however, Kimiko is childishly moralistic, directing her anger with an oppressive system back on the people constrained by it. Yes Kenichi’s life is one of socially condoned hypocrisy, but there’s no point in blaming him or Oyo for trying to find happiness where they can.

Blame them she does, however, and her sister with them. Kimiko meets Sato by chance and starts dating him in the non-serious manner of young people of the time only for the Satos to become worried and again push the idea of a marriage. Having been spotted with Sato in the street by Kunie, Kimiko’s confession is cruel and cutting, delivered almost with glee as she reveals that her uncle and father have been avoiding telling her that Sato turned her down because he liked her sister more. Kunie had professed that she wasn’t all that bothered about the marriage because she had become convinced that she “couldn’t have a happy marriage anyway”, but her tears suggest a deeper hurt than having her hopes for the business dashed and being wounded by her sister’s callousness. Nevertheless, she wants nothing but her sister’s happiness and so if she seriously wanted to marry Sato for the “right” reasons, she would of course support her.

Kimiko however remains selfish and implacable. Kenkichi, hoping to teach her a lesson, brings Oyo into the home and reveals to Kimiko that she is a mistress’ daughter. It does not go well. Kimiko refuses to engage with Oyo, while Kenkichi also asks for an apology on behalf of Kunie who has only ever tried to protect both Kimiko and Oyo by trying to reunite their family, but Kimiko leaves in a huff shouting that she has no need of mothers or fathers or families or anything else. A rapprochement is brokered between the women only when Kenikichi is made to pay for his failure as a patriarch. It turns out grandpa was right after all, he’d been tampering with the sake and now the police want a word with him. With the arrival of Oyo, tacitly accepted by Kimiko’s final return to the home, the family is in some senses restored but also broken. The gossips in the barbers across the way lament the end of the Nadaya Sake store, callously speculating on what will replace it, while all Kunie can do is look on in consternation and disappointment.


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.


The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Actress and the Poet title cardAmong the directors most closely associated with the golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is not usually remembered for his sense of humour but his pre-war work often saw him making uncomfortable forays into the shomin-geki comedy. The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Joyu to shijin), Naruse’s second film after leaving Shochiku for P.C.L, is among the more successful but also tinged with characteristic irony that says this is funny because it’s not funny at all.

The generic shomin-geki setup finds us in a small community of suburban houses where mild-mannered poet Geppu (Hiroshi Uruki) lives with his successful actress wife Chieko (Sachiko Chiba). Amusingly enough, and in a motif which will be repeated, the film opens with an high impact scene of a woman screaming after being threatened with a knife, but thankfully it turns out that Chieko and her friends are simply rehearsing for a play. The actors dispatch Geppu to fetch them some cigarettes, which brings him into contact with his no good “friend” Nose (Kamatari Fujiwara), a struggling writer who is absolutely sure his latest work is going to win a big prize which is why it’s not a big problem that he’s so behind on his rent that he’s been coming and going through the upstairs window so he doesn’t attract the attention of his landlady.

When we first meet Geppu he’s wearing a pinny and cheerfully hanging up the washing. A young man passes by on a bicycle and seems surprised, asking if he himself really did all that laundry to which Geppu somewhat improbably replies that it’s all second nature when you’ve been in the army. Even though this is obviously a very “normal” day for Geppu, the questions keep coming. Ohama (Haruko Toda), the nosy woman from next-door, remarks that everyone in the neighbourhood loves Geppu because he’s just so nice but he’s also become a hot topic with the ladies at the bathhouse because no one’s quite sure what it is he “does”. In the modern parlance, Geppu is a basically househusband who dabbles in “poetry”, or as Ohama later explains “songs for children”.

In this fiercely modern environment, it’s Chieko who wields the financial power while her husband appears not to mind trailing behind. She wears kimono but often with luxurious furs which might lead to us ask why they live in this modest suburban house rather than in the bright lights of the city, but even so the marriage appears to be a happy and progressively equal one. In fact, as we later discover, there’s never been a cross word between Geppu and his wife, which is a problem because Chieko’s latest role involves a marital tiff and she’s struggling to get to grips with it because she doesn’t know what it’s like to fall out with your spouse. To figure it out she gets Geppu to read lines with her in a situation which eventually repeats in their real life when Nose bamboozles Geppu into letting him stay in the upstairs room rent free, leading to an almost identical fight watched calmly by Nose and Ohama who think they’ve got ringside seats to a play they could never afford to see.

Nose’s intervention unbalances the couple’s relationship in that it forces Geppu to reassert his masculinity. “A promise between men is a serious thing”, Geppu affirms “I can’t just go back on it because my wife says no”. Chieko reminds him, however, that this is technically her house – she pays all the bills, while his “writing” career is good only for the odd box of sponge cake. She doesn’t like it, perhaps understandably, that he’s “invited” a ne’er do well to come and live with them without even bothering to talk to her about it. She tries to put her foot down, but Geppu remains as irritatingly passive as ever only slightly putout to have his subjugated status suddenly used against him.

Naruse ends the picture with a comic sequence in which Chieko sees the light. Thanks to her real life argument with her husband, she’s figured out how to perfect her performance but she’s apparently so method that she also begins to embrace her role as a conventional wife off stage too. Rather than Geppu letting her sleep in and cooking the breakfast himself, this time it’s Geppu wrapped up in a futon while Chieko chops veg downstairs. Nevertheless, there is a minor irony in this moment of domestic bliss in that it directly follows the news that the nice young couple who just moved in across the road have committed double suicide because of his embezzlement and subsequent debts. Neatly underlining the consumerist trends of the age, the couple wanted to die in their own home even if it was only “theirs” for a few moments. Meanwhile, Ohama and her insurance salesman husband are busy having a blazing row next-door which just goes to show that old-fashioned marriages aren’t so happy either.

Chieko superficially plays the conventional wife, engaging in a little role-play with her husband while Nose listens on from the stairwell, but theirs remains a very modern marriage in which she is free to fulfil herself outside the home and her husband is seemingly unbothered (to a point at least) by the mild censure of the local ladies who both love him for his niceness and perhaps dislike him for it too. Naruse undercuts the conventionally “happy” ending in which traditional gender roles are restored and the family rebalanced by ending on a note of irony as the home of Ohama, a traditional wife dominating her henpecked husband in a comic yet socially accepted fashion, is thrown into violent discord while all is peaceful in the decidedly modern house of Geppu.


Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Wife be like a rose posterIt’s tempting to view the cinema of the 1930s as a gloomy affair, facilitating the rise of militarism and increasingly at mercy of the censors, but the early sound era was nothing if not playful and generously open to international influences. It was also often surprisingly progressive, evidencing the fact that pre-war Japan was also changing or, at least, that there was an appetite for change especially among the young. Mikio Naruse’s delightfully charming (perhaps uncharacteristically so) comedy, Wife! Be Like a Rose! (妻よ薔薇のやうに, Tsuma yo bara no yo ni) dramatises just this change as its modern girl heroine tries to process the definitive end of her parents’ relationship as she prepares to marry.

Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba) has a job in an office which is more or less supporting herself and her mother seeing as her father, Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama), left the family over 15 years previously and has been living with former geisha with whom he has two other children. Despite his long absence, Kimiko’s mother Etsuko (Toshiko Ito) has continued to pine for her absent husband and makes a little money on the side writing sad love poems for the newspapers. A request to stand as a go between at a wedding, traditionally a role only performed by married women, forces Etsuko to accept that she has been abandoned but the snag is that Kimiko and her boyfriend Seiji (Heihachiro Okawa) want to get married themselves and so his father wants to meet Kimiko’s dad which is obviously a problem.

Despite her “modern girl” appearance, Kimiko has some quite old fashioned ideas. She looks down on her maudlin mother, believing that she’s brought her apparent romantic heartbreak on herself through being a bad wife. Etsuko never seemed very interested in Shunsaku when he was around and never did any of the little wifely things Kimiko thinks a wife ought to do like vacuous chat and helping her husband change out of his work clothes. Kimiko thinks a good wife “acts childish and cajoling, or jealous sometimes, or motherly and protective”, believing that Etsuko knows this and has the ability to play the part of the ideal spouse but refuses to and therefore has only herself to blame. Kimiko’s uncle (Kamatari Fujiwara), however, corrects her. He piles the blame on the irresponsible Shunsaku who ran out on a wife and daughter to shack up with geisha.

Shunsaku, meanwhile, may be irresponsible in one sense, but perhaps it’s equally irresponsible to stay in an unhappy marriage. Now a gold prospector in the mountains, he is poor and unsuccessful but has built a happy family home with a kindly wife and two sweet children. Kimiko’s desire to drag him back to the city is partly practical in that she needs him to be her father so she can marry Seiji, but there’s also a part of her that thinks that her father’s transgression must be corrected by forcing him to resume his paternal role. Unlike Etsuko, however, Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa) is the classically “good” wife and Kimiko can’t deny she’s good for her father. Seeing him in the mountains and remembering him at home, Kimiko begins to realise that it would be wrong to take him away from his new family even if she thinks she has the better claim, especially when she finds out that it’s Oyuki who’s been sending her mother maintenance cheques every month for the past few years.

In fact, Oyuki feels so guilty about stealing Shunsaku away that she’s been putting money aside to pay for Kimiko’s wedding/education while keeping her own daughter home from school. Far from the gold digger Kimiko had assumed her to be, she’s been the one supporting the feckless Shunsaku as he pursues his get rich quick dream of gold prospecting. Realising that the pair of them “act in perfect harmony”, Kimiko comes to the conclusion that her father belongs in the mountains but finds her resolve wavering after returning to civilisation. She begins to wish he’d stay and hatches a plan to get her parents back together only to see how out of sync they are after 15 years apart. They swap pleasantries like strangers, and the mild-mannered Shunsaku visibly shrinks in the presence of the shrewish Etsuko who allows her pride to ruin any attempt at reconciliation.

What the modern girl Kimiko discovers is that sometimes things don’t work out like they’re supposed to, and that’s OK. Though it is in one sense a “happy” ending in that it obeys a justice born of human feeling, it’s also a melancholy moment of defeat both for the lovelorn Etsuko who has, as Kimiko says “lost”, and the now resigned Kimiko who harbours a degree of contempt towards her mother for not fighting harder for love. Standing at a crossroads of modernity, Kimiko looks both forward and back. She vows to be a “good wife” but her foundations have been shaken. Is this tragedy, or farce? She asks herself. It’s almost impossible to say.


Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, Mikio Naruse, 1936)

Tochuzen KazoemonIt’s an age old question, but does being a great artist give you the right to treat other people terribly? Hopefully, most people would say no, it does not. Most “great artists”, however, may have a different opinion. The hero of Mikio Naruse’s 1936 biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, AKA Man of the House) is very much of the opinion that inflicting suffering on others, and thereby vicariously suffering himself (but not really because who cares about them), is the source of all his supposedly “great art”.

Tochuken Kumoemon was in fact a real person who died twenty years before the film’s release and had his heyday as a renowned yet scandal ridden performer of “rokyoku” in late Meiji. To brings things full circle and explain why perhaps his life was fit for cinematic exploration in the politically fraught atmosphere of 1936, it’s helpful to remember that Tochuken Kumoemon’s performances of such patriotic fare as the 47 Ronin helped to rouse nationalist sentiment during the Russo-Japanese conflict. “Rokyoku”, also known as “naniwabushi”, is a traditional art of narrative singing accompanied by shamisen which found favour with the militarists for its essential Japaneseness and hearty rustic vulgarity.

In any case, we meet Tochuken Kumoemon (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) on a train drawing closer to his planned return to Tokyo after having been forced to flee it eight years previously because of a sex scandal which led him to separate from his first wife, leaving a son, Sentaro (Kaoru Ito), behind, and marry Otsuma (Chikako Hosokawa) – his shamisen player with whom he is currently travelling. The troupe are supposed to be breaking their journey at Kozu, but for reasons unexplained, Tochuken Kumoemon decides to get off the train at Shizuoka and promptly disappears without a word to anyone. 

The disappearance is problematic on several levels, the first being that the stop was only engineered to allow Tochuken Kumoemon to visit his estranged son Sentaro. Some in the group posit that Tochuken Kumoemon has come down with a rare case of stage fright seeing as this Tokyo show will be his biggest to date, while others assume he is embarrassed to go back to the city because of the scandals which previously engulfed him there, and some believe he is simply conflicted about visiting the son he abandoned to run off with another woman.

Anyone who knows him, however, might be better placed to realise that the great Tochuken Kumoemon rarely has a reason for doing anything save that it pleased him to do so at the time. Nevertheless, what we discover about him as he tours the inns of Kozu throwing his money about like some crazed libertine, is that he apparently liked his life better when he was poor but is bravely suffering under the burdens of wealth “for his art”. In fact everything in Tochuken Kumoemon’s life is “for his art”, including the thoughts and feelings of those closest to him.

Tochuken Kumoemon’s story may be intended as a kind of militarist parable about a man who devoted everything of himself to a particular ideal, in his case art but for the militarists perhaps country. The major problem here is that Tochuken Kumoemon never particularly suffers himself, grinning broadly throughout, but forces others to suffer on his behalf while he extracts from them qualities he can use to enhance his performance. Pain may be good for art, but it’s rarely good for life, and most would find themselves questioning why it is those around him remain contented to suffer solely to facilitate Tochuken Kumoemon’s artistic fulfilment.

Loyal wife Otsuma begins to reconsider, bravely challenging Tochuken Kumoemon on the inauthenticity of his performances which, though growing in popularity, she feels to be increasingly hollow. She remembers the early days of their courtship which were apparently marked by a fierce competitive rivalry which proved artistically beneficial to them both before spilling over into other kinds of offstage passion which now appears to have cooled. Otsuma, now weakened as she finds herself succumbing to the later stages of consumption, something Tochuken Kumoemon refuses to acknowledge, fears that she is now unable to inspire him with her playing which is why he’s been up to his old tricks consorting with geishas. Claiming that Otsuma wouldn’t care about his affairs because she’s an artist too and will therefore “understand”, Tochuken Kumoemon has taken up with a pretty little thing, Chidori (Sachiko Chiba), from whom he intends to steal “youth and innocence” for his performances, little caring what he might leave behind.

For Tochuken Kumoemon everything is simply fuel for art and so he’s excused himself from the need to treat others with respect or kindness. Sentaro, his rejected son, rejects this aspect of his father’s philosophy, immediately bonding with his kindly step-mother and resenting his absent father’s treatment of her. In “raising” his son, Tochuken Kumoemon bangs on about traditionally “militarist” values of manliness, explaining that he is imperfect because he is a “great artist” and that his life has been full of problems but that he has overcome them with strength and perseverance. He tells his son that “weakness is the worst thing in a man”, but appears primed to hit the roof on learning that Sentaro may be expelled from school for fighting with his schoolmates because they mocked his unconventional family setup. Worst of all he casts his son away as one of the many who unfairly demand “perfection” from him even though he is an artist and cannot be expected to abide by the rules of “normal people”.

Meanwhile, Otsuma lies dying in a hospital. Tochuken Kumoemon won’t see her because he refuses to view her as “just a woman”, preferring to remember her as “a woman who lived only for art”. The subtext being for “his” art, rather than her own. He betrays himself when he admits that he “doesn’t want to be any more sad” than he is now, simply refusing to deal with the unpleasantness and personal suffering of facing the fact that someone important to you is in pain and will soon be gone. Yet despite a brief rebellion after an ill-advised gift from Chidori, Otsuma eventually agrees to sacrifice herself for Tochuken Kumoemon’s art, to die “quietly” as an artist and not as a woman. 

It’s only at this point that Tochuken Kumoemon decides to embrace the romance of the moment, finally travelling to her deathbed in order to sing a song. If Tochuken Kumoemon is a militarist hero, he’s not a particularly sympathetic one. He remains monstrously self-involved, hypocritical, an emotional coward who uses the suffering of others for his own ends with only the justification of the primacy of his art. Naruse undercuts the propaganda potential of the piece by painting his patriotic singer as a ridiculous prig who embodies the militarists’ coldness towards the thoughts and feelings of their fellow humans but displays none of their supposedly romantic heroism in his empty swagger and well worn platitudes. Is naniwabushi really worth all this pain? No. Someone needs to tell Tochuken Kumoemon he’s not as important as he thinks he is. And while they’re at it, they could have a word with the militarists, too.


The real Tochuken Kumoemon

Real TOCHUKEN KUMOEMON