That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)

Most closely associated with his late career family dramas, Yasujiro Ozu has acquired a reputation for geniality which may in a sense be slightly unfair. He was always an astute chronicler of his times, often choosing to view them through the frame of family, and was never as blind to the issues of the day as some would have it. Ozu’s ‘30s work, that which survives at least, is in a sense fiercely political in its critique of the inequalities of the depression-era society. One of his early crime movies, the silent That Night’s Wife (その夜の妻, Sono yo no Tsuma) insists that justice must be done but does so with compassion in its full and total empathy for a man driven to extremes by the depth of his paternal love. 

Indeed, the early part of the film is tense noir chase as the hero, desperate father Shuji (Tokihiko Okada), attempts to evade a police dragnet to make his way home after robbing a bank to get money to pay for his sick daughter Michiko’s (Mitsuko Ichimura) medical care. Meanwhile, loyal wife Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo) has been patiently waiting at home tending to the child who refuses to sleep because she only wants her father and constantly asks where he is. Shuji eventually makes it back and tells his horrified wife what he has done, agreeing that he will turn himself in to the police once Michiko is well, but he’s already out of luck. The taxi he darted into was being driven by an undercover cop (Chishu Ryu) who installs himself in the apartment but agrees to wait until the doctor comes in the morning before taking Shuji in. 

Out of keeping with the rest of Ozu’s career but very much in the vein of his depression-era silents, That Night’s Wife concerns a poor but happy family mustering what little resources they have in the face of despair. Filled with tension as the policeman waits impatiently, the camera pans around the one room apartment where the family live and finds it to be a homely, bohemian space, apparently an artist’s studio with foreign film posters and travel souvenirs hanging from the walls. By all indications a starving painter, Shuji is a poor man brought to ruin by accidental tragedy. His daughter is deathly ill and doctors cost money. We can see that, by the standards of the time, he is a very hands on father beloved by his little girl and is obviously willing to sacrifice himself and his future to ensure her survival

It’s Mayumi, however, to whom the film’s title refers and in her role as wife rather than mother. The doctor (Tatsuo Saito) worries that she has not slept in the last few days, how could she when her child is so ill, but it’s she who eventually picks up the gun to protect the family by disarming the policeman and, essentially, keeping him hostage until the morning when, she claims, Shuji will willingly go with him after confirming Michiko’s survival. The world is turned upside down, no one quite plays the role they’ve been assigned. The loving father, an effete artist, turns unconvincing master criminal, the loyal wife gangster’s moll, and the policeman a calm and compassionate guardian deeply moved by the family’s predicament but also knowing that the law must be served. 

In a typically Ozu touch, the policeman pretends to be asleep with the intention of letting Shuji escape, but he once again makes an atypical choice. He refuses to run, swearing off “crazy ideas” but unrepentant in his crime. Shuji determines to pay his debt to society so that he can return home as a redeemed father and hold his daughter as a man unburned by his transgression. The message isn’t so much that crime doesn’t pay as that crime must be paid for. Shuji is acquitted in the moral courts of the audience’s hearts and not even the policeman blames him for what he has done which is all he could do as a father in an oppressive and indifferent society. A strange complicity develops between the two men who are restored to their original roles, both acknowledging that of the other and sorry for what they each know must happen next but already resigned. The father saves his family only through accepting his exile from it, but unlike Ozu’s wandering fathers of the 1930s, seems destined to return after redeeming himself in the eyes of a society which had long since abandoned him. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

A Woman Crying in Spring (泣き濡れた春の女よ, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933)

woman crying in spring still 1The later legacy of Hiroshi Shimizu has largely been one of melancholy humanism shot through the unjaded eyes of children who have found themselves for one reason or another excluded from mainstream society. His first talkie, 1933’s A Woman Crying in Spring (泣き濡れた春の女よ, Nakinureta Haru no Onna yo, AKA The Lady Who Wept in Spring) is among his more pessimistic efforts, adopting the trappings of the classic melodrama but repurposing them as a coming of age tale for a woman who is already a mother herself set against the backdrop of the precarious contemporary economy among migrant workers and self-trafficking women. Though the overall tone is one of defeat and resignation in which the only possible salvation lies in learning to accept one’s fate, Shimizu does at least allow his heroines the possibility of a brighter future having actively decided on its course.

The film begins with a collection on men being counted onto a ship, onto which they are eventually followed by a collection of women. The men are going north to Hokkaido to work in the newly opened mines, while the women are following them to work in the newly opened bars. This is not a western, but it is a frontier town being made anew by the ongoing economic flux of ‘30s Japan.

The foreman reads out some rules for migrant workers arriving at the mines which boil down to – no women, no sake, no gambling, and the foreman’s word is law. The first two of these will turn out to have been good advice which was not followed, but it is the foreman himself who kicks off the drama by taking two of the miners, Kenji (Den Obinata) and Chuko (Shigeru Ogura), to the local bar run by one of the boat’s female passengers, Ohama (Yoshiko Okada). Ohama has a small daughter, Omitsu (Mitsuko Ichimura), whom she often neglects while she operates her slightly taboo business. Meanwhile, bar girl Ofuji (Akiko Chihaya) has taken a liking to the handsome and sensitive Kenji who tried to comfort her while she was crying on the boat. Ohama, however, has also taken a liking to him which has created an awkward situation among the women at the bar, though Kenji himself is a solitary sort and perhaps not really thinking of taking up with either woman.

The dilemmas are romantic, largely, but their implications wider. The first “issue” stems from the running of the mine itself which is shown to be inefficient and unsafe. The owners care only for money and not for the men who are all poor migrants unable to secure other, safer work in more palatable industries. The same is largely true of the women at the bar who have “fallen” into this line of work through poverty and lack of other options. Ofuji, possibly new to this world of casual prostitution, weeps on the boat despite having come to terms with her decision while a letter from home letting her know that her mother is seriously ill continues to weigh on her mind. She is touched by Kenji’s kindness and perhaps sees in him a possible escape from the increasingly oppressive nature of her life as a lowly bar girl.

Ohama, however, thinks something similar though her conflict is a slightly different one. Already a mother, Ohama is a middle-aged woman and the bar’s owner, which is to say she is in part the oppressor of these other women and in the business of marketing them to the local miners. Demonstrating his continuing sympathy for lonely children, Shimizu lets Ohama’s daughter Omitsu take centrestage through her mother’s continuing emotional distance. Ohama continually shuts Omitsu out of her bedroom (which is, technically, a place of work) as somewhere which is “unfit for children”, but ignores the inconvenient fact that this world is completely unfit for raising a child. Cast out, Omitsu wanders alone around the physically dangerous mine while she is surrounded by rough men who are often drunk and violent – all dangers her mother refuses to see in being entirely self-involved and overly conscious of the illicit nature of her business.

Ofuji and Ohama both see Kenji as a way out of their dead end lives, but Ohama is gradually made to realise that her opportunity for escape through romance has already passed. Like the later A Mother’s Love, Shimizu seems to suggest that a woman must cease to be a woman when she becomes a mother and that Ohama’s salvation is not a man but in accepting her role as Omitsu’s guardian and protector. Thus, chided by Kenji who has befriended the lonely little girl and noticed how keenly she feels her mother’s coldness towards her, Ohama begins to abandon her romantic fantasies and accept herself as a middle-aged woman with a child. Though this evidently means that she has both the right and the duty to continue on “alone” as a single woman raising a daughter, it is also a mild endorsement of the notion that single women with children must dedicate themselves entirely to childrearing and have lost all rights or hopes for future romantic fulfilment through the slightly taboo idea of “second” marriage.

The Japanese title is noticeably ambiguous and could as easily be a general statement on the unhappy state of 1930s women told through the melancholy tale of two trapped in the Hokkaido snows long after “spring” has supposedly sprung. Ohama, accepting her fate, sacrifices herself for Ofuji, enabling Ofuji’s flight in the knowledge that for her the ship has already sailed. His first talkie, Shimizu makes interesting use of sound in his frequent musical motifs but makes sure to leave space for the mournful sound of the boats departing as a woman watches sadly from an open window while the snow continues to fall silently before her.


A Hero of Tokyo (東京の英雄, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1935)

Hero of Tokyo still 1Hiroshi Shimizu’s ‘30s films, made against the backdrop of the increasingly censorious militarist regime, had an ambivalent attitude to Japan’s wider foreign policy, its economic impact, and prospects for the future. His final silent film, A Hero of Tokyo (東京の英雄, Tokyo no Eiyu), the title of which is perhaps either deceptive or mildly ironic, is among the bleakest of Shimizu’s depictions of a changing society he perhaps saw as increasingly corrupted by greed and inhumanity. A hahamono of sorts, Hero is not as crushing as Forget Love For Now, but ends on a note of frustrated ambiguity in which wrongdoing has been exposed and justice served but at a terrible cost, leaving the institution of the family itself and therefore the entire social order lying in pieces and broken beyond repair.

The film begins among Shimizu’s familiar milieu of small boys as they watch the trains that will eventually bring their fathers home to them coming and going. Some of the boys stay to play but eventually only one is left behind – Kanichi (Tomio Aoki), whose widowed father constantly works late and leaves him alone in the care of their maid. Kanichi’s father, Nemoto (Yukichi Iwata), is engaged in a local mining concern and, berated by the maid who reminds him that his son is often lonely, decides to marry again to bring order to his house. After placing an ad which states he is a widowed CEO with a good salary, Nemoto marries Haruko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) – a widow with two children of her own, Hideo (Jun Yokoyama) and Kayoko (Mitsuko Ichimura). A short time later it is discovered that Nemoto’s business is a scam and he flees town leaving his family to face the music alone. Haruko, committed to raising all three children equally, must now find a way to support herself but as a woman with young children and few qualifications there are few jobs available to her. Soon she falls into bar work which may not be “respectable” but allows her to support her family.

10 years later, Haruko owns a fine suburban house and the children appear to be leading a fine middle-class life. Trouble begins when Kayoko (Michiko Kuwano) marries a nice middle-class young man only to be “sent back” soon after the wedding when his family find out about Haruko’s “shameful” past. Though Haruko had told the children that she worked “in a club where executives come to relax” when they were small, Kayoko is shocked and appalled to discover her mother is tainted with the stigma of the sex trade and even more so when her mother’s past threatens to destroy her future. Haruko begs her not to tell her brothers, but Hideo (Koji Mitsui) finds out from his girlfriend, who also dumps him on hearing the rumours, and goes off the rails. Only Kanichi (Mitsugu Fujii), the step-son, stands by the mother he regards as the “best in Japan”, feeling both profound gratitude and sorrowful empathy for the sacrifice she has made on his behalf.

At heart a hahamono, A Hero of Tokyo fits neatly into Shimizu’s career long interest in female oppression in casting Haruko’s trials as entirely caused by being badly let down by a patriarchal society. Having lost one husband and being betrayed by the second, Haruko is forced to stand alone in a society which refuses to forgive her for it. As a “married” woman, she can gain no “honest” work and the necessity to care for her children means that she cannot take a role in service which in effect means dedicating oneself to a family which is not one’s own. She lacks qualifications or connections and has no family to support her and so she is forced into the only remaining line of work available to women in her situation. Haruko makes a great success of herself and becomes an upright businesswoman running her own establishment even if she cannot be exactly proud of the achievement which does (to her own shame and regret) rely on the degradation of other women just like her, though she tries to do the best for them that she can.

Yet her children, as all ungrateful children of a hahamono, are unable to forgive her for the transgressions she was forced to make entirely for their benefit. Having cast their mother as a saint of elegance and decorum, they cannot accept this new information which renders her a mere woman at the mercy of a cruel society. Kayoko, having run away from home, ironically finds herself in the same, or perhaps a worse, position, becoming a streetwalker – by her own admission “famous” and an accidental subject for one of Kanichi’s episodes of investigative reporting as a rookie newspaper man. Meanwhile Hideo has crossed to the other side and joined the ranks of exploiters of women in joining a gang only to get himself into trouble for trying to leave it when he realises he has become a hired goon for one of Nemoto’s stooge companies. The children are “ruined” not by their mother’s “sin” but by the conservative society that forced her into it and by the paternal failures of Nemoto whose abandonment reduced them to dire desperation.

It is, in this sense, Haruko rather than Kanichi who is the “hero” of the title – valiantly battling against the prejudices and cruelties of the city whilst retaining her innate sense of honour decency and steadfastly shielding her children from suffering. Her attempt to protect them perhaps backfires, leaving them without the necessary perspective and humanitarian spirit to feel empathy for others rather than succumbing to the judgemental attitudes of the age. Thus both of the biological children are condemned to suffer in the very way Haruko suffered to prevent and then find themselves too ashamed to return to her. Only Kanichi who had already suffered in his childhood loneliness, in his shame for the transgression of his father, and his position as a step-son doubting his place in a family which was not his by blood, is able to accept and sympathise with his mother’s suffering and experiences only guilt and gratitude that she had chosen to sacrifice herself for his greater happiness.

Yet Kanichi’s role as the good son is also tainted by his filial opposition to his father as it necessarily conflicts with his desire for social justice as a crusading reporter. Kanichi’s desire to expose corruption is ultimately for the common good – to save innocent people being deceived by his father’s dishonourable scheming, but it’s also an act of revenge aimed squarely at a symbol of broken patriarchal responsibilities. In the various names Shimizu attaches to Nemoto’s sham businesses, he aligns him with the expansionist Japanese state which was currently attempting a similarly dishonourable attempt to sell the economic gains of its imperialist project built on the back of international exploitation and dishonesty. It is not just a father who has failed his family, but “the” father which is failing its people in leading them down a dark and disturbing alleyway in which honour and morality no longer have any currency.

Kanichi too profits from his father’s crime – his first bonus is a direct result of the exposé of his father’s company and so he also becomes part of a system of corruption. His actions, however, are not entirely accepted by Haruko who is ashamed and troubled by Kanichi’s crime against filial piety and therefore by his betrayal of the social codes which define his society. Kanichi has picked a side, but in doing so he has also damned himself and emerges not victorious but compromised. Despite the “happy” ending, in which justice has been done and the emotional bonds of the true family restored, the concluding scenes remain ominous as the newspaper boy delivers the sorry news all over town and ruptures the tranquil middle-class peace of Haruko’s once happy suburban home.


The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (マダムと女房, Heinosuke Gosho, 1931)

Neighbor's wife and mine flyerThere’s an especial irony in the fact that Japan’s first talkie is essentially all about how annoying sound can be. Directed by Heinosuke Gosho, pioneer of the shomingeki and a longstanding devotee of melancholy comedy, The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (マダムと女房, Madame to Nyobo) is another in a long line of contemporary farces set in an idealised middle-class world but as much as Gosho goes out of his way to include as much soundplay as humanly possible he never lets the gimmick get the better of him.

Gosho opens with a brief prologue sequence otherwise detached from the main narrative in which down on his luck playwright Shibano (Atsushi Watanabe) gets into an argument with a precious artist busily painting a canvas of the house opposite him and gleefully admiring his own work. The painter likes this spot because of its silent serenity – an atmosphere quickly broken when Shibano struts up, whistling loudly, humming, making conversation. Unfortunately Shibano doesn’t rate the painter’s work and is also non-plussed that he doesn’t know who Shibano, apparently a “famous” playwright, is and doesn’t seem to respect writers as fellow artists anyway. A fight breaks out and all because of some unwanted noise pollution. Eventually the two men end up friends again after bonding in their mutual appreciation of the charms of “madame” (Satoko Date) the woman who lives in the house next to the one Shibano has just decided to rent on a whim with the intention of getting some “peace and quiet” in the countryside to finish his overdue manuscript.

The country is, as it turns out, not as quiet as you’d think. No sooner has Shibano moved in than he’s assailed by noise – mostly from within his own household as he’s a father of two, a little girl of perhaps four or five, and a bawling infant son. He doesn’t help matters by winding up his exhausted wife Kinuyo (Kinuyo Tanaka) by loudly impersonating a distressed cat during the middle of the night but a bigger problem is about to present itself in the form of the Mammy Jazz Band who, led by the woman Shibano was so smitten with after bumping into her during his altercation with the painter, use the house next-door as their rehearsal studio.

The house of Shibano is, apparently, a fairly happy one though long suffering wife and mother Kinuyo has reason enough for exasperation as her husband wastes his time drinking and playing mahjong while the deadline for the manuscript he’s supposed to be writing draws ever closer. In charge of the household finances, Kinuyo is keenly aware the family are low on funds – something presumably not helped by Shibano’s impulsive decision to rent a cottage in the country. He’s left himself a dozen inspirational notes reminding himself that manuscripts don’t write themselves, but still Shibano can’t buckle down. Having come to the country to escape the noise of city life, he finds himself assaulted by a silence differential in dealing first with his noisy children and responsibilities as a father, and then the constant intrusion of unexpected sounds which, in the city, might hardly be noticed against the constant background hum.

Trying everything from plugging his ears to tying a scarf around his head and finally jumping inside a cardboard box, Shibano decides to enlist Kinuyo to tell next-door to keep it down but she, an elegant Japanese wife, would hardly dare to disturb the “peace”. She tells her lazy husband to sort it out himself only to regret her decision when she spots him laughing away with the sophisticated modern woman next-door, drinking in the party atmosphere of her Bohemian home and enjoying a private concert as the “noisy” jazz band rehearse their latest numbers.

Despite his occupation which might imply a little Bohemianism in itself, Shibano is a traditionally minded sort. He may have turned up in swanky hat and pinstripe suit carrying a cane, but in his new home he dresses exclusively in kimono, as does his dutiful wife, who can only trail behind her husband in exasperation offering the occasional barbed comment as her only form of mild resistance. His household demands quietude, but cannot attain it. He is, therefore, naturally led away to the woman next door like a time traveller suddenly given a glimpse of the new and exciting future. The musical repertoire of the Mammy Jazz Band is all about “speed”, they move fast and with no thought to the disturbance they trail through the air around them. They are going somewhere, in contrast to Shibano who has been in a state of inertia for quite sometime.

It is, however, a little sad that it’s “madame” that finally speeds on Shibano rather than his wife and children even if there is nothing improper in their relationship – Madame is not particularly interested in Shibano in anything other than a neighbourly fashion, her people pleasing friendliness and genuine kindness perhaps running in contrast to the conventional depiction of a “modern” woman as Kinuyo later points out in jealousy when she remarks that women like that are all “100% sex delinquents”.

The film’s Japanese title is certainly drawing a contrast between the modern “madame” and the traditionally minded “nyobo” though it comes down on neither side, allowing room for both sorts of women in this rapidly changing society. Shibano maybe a lazy, easily distracted sort of man but he’s knows what’s good for him and when all’s said and done his relationship with his wife is as solid as they come despite their frequent financial woes, childcare spats, and momentary pangs of jealousy or anguish. The family, repaired and in motion once again, finally get their day in the sun enjoying a rare moment of blissful happiness as they break into a chorus of “My Blue Heaven”, positively rupturing the silence with their own joyful voices as they join the “noisy” cavalcade heading towards the exciting “speed era” waiting for them in the future.