The Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1959)

“When all human beings acknowledge each other as human let the precious joy that results be universal. When this joy lives forever in the hearts of women and is handed down to daughters who become mothers then tomorrow will not just repeat today but be a new beginning” reads the opening title card/mission statement of Satsuo Yamamoto’s chronicle of early 20th century Japan. Told though the eyes of one very good woman wrestling against her baser instincts, Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Niguruma no Uta) is a gentle plea for a little more empathy and understanding in which the heroine suffers greatly but is finally rewarded in managing to keep the darkness at bay. 

In late Meiji, Seki (Yuko Mochizuki) develops a fondness for the most eligible young man in town – the postman, Moichi (Rentaro Mikuni), who can read and write and isn’t bad looking either. To her surprise, Moichi admires her too and eventually proposes marriage, intending to give up his job as a postman which doesn’t pay as much as it used to now costs are rising because of the recently concluded Sino-Japanese war to buy a handcart with the longterm goal of building a small handcart empire with a warehouse of his own that will allow him to build a fancy house to live in. Seki hesitates, she’s an illiterate maid perhaps she isn’t good enough for the great Moichi but he replies that he couldn’t care less about that and only wants to know if she wants him. She does, but has to check with her parents first. They object to the marriage on the grounds that Moichi is penniless and disown her when she tells them she’s marrying him anyway. Disowned by her parents, she also loses her job as a maid and is forced to head to Moichi’s ahead of schedule where his extremely cold mother (Teruko Kishi) makes no secret of her resentment of her new daughter-in-law but is eventually forced to relent. 

Unlike Moichi and his mother, the other residents of the village and particularly its women are bright and cheerful despite the harshness of their lives. Swept off her feet by Moichi’s seeming sophistication, Seki is in for a rude awakening in realising that his work ethic is extreme and in many ways he’s just as cruel as his heartless mother. On her arrival, Seki’s mother-in-law complains that she brings “only a small bundle” while simultaneously suggesting that she somehow looks down on them because they are only poor people, insisting that she work alongside Moichi pulling carts to make their dreams of riches come true. Seki jumps at the chance to prove her love, but finds her mother-in-law unchanged. 

Pulling the cart through the village, Moichi and Seki pass another woman who seems put out by Seki’s presence, complaining that Moichi never bothered to reply to her own proposal. Moichi dismisses her complaints, avowing that he didn’t marry her because she wasn’t a worker, implying that he was only interested in someone who would work alongside him in pursuit of his goal of becoming a homeowner. Seki is indeed a worker, and a strong woman who bears her hardships with grace, but finds it increasingly difficult to put up with her mother-in-law’s heartlessness and adherence to old-fashioned feudal customs by which she claims her authority over the household while Moichi, as the dutiful son, always defers to his mother. When the first child arrives, Moichi declares that a daughter brings him no joy, while the mother-in-law who is supposed to be watching her, just lets her cry all day long and doesn’t even change her nappies. Out on the road, Seki comes across another couple in a similar situation who’ve brought their little one with them, riding in a bucket on the back of the cart. Seki wonders why they can’t do the same, then she’d at least know her daughter was alright and not crying her heart out in a dirty nappy, but Moichi won’t hear of it lest his mother be offended that Seki is suggesting she’s not looking after her granddaughter properly. 

Moichi works every hour god sends, but not so much to provide for his family as to improve his own status in the hope of owning a sizeable home, perhaps to “regain” the kind of position his mother thinks is theirs as descendents of the Heike. He exists on a kind of political fault line in his rigid austerity, believing that you really can make it just by working hard while also becoming the de facto spokesman for the other cartmen because he is the only one able to read and write. Yet faced with constant and obvious oppression of the eerily feudal kind in persistent rice profiteering he does nothing much to resist it and gives only grudging approval to his son’s intention of forming a train driver’s union. 

While Moichi has pinned all his hopes on handcarts, the future is fast approaching. A funeral procession of cartmen is greeted by the horse-drawn variety coming the other way as if to signal their imminent obsolescence. But the horsemen aren’t much better off. If Moichi couldn’t afford a horse, he’ll never afford a motor car and the mechanised age is on the horizon. The only work he manages to find ironically involves transporting lumber for the new railway line, but it’s a gamble that pays off and makes Moichi a wealthy man once again. 

Material comforts aren’t everything, however, and Seki struggles to reconcile herself to life with her increasing cruel mother-in-law and emotionally distant husband. She worries that she’s becoming what she hates, finding it difficult to find sympathy for Moichi’s mother now she’s ill in feeling that perhaps she’s getting what she deserves. Her friend advises her that that’s just “bugs” eating away at her heart and what she really needs to do is fly in the opposite direction, finally make a friend of her mother-in-law in trying to understand her. She has, after all, had a very hard life, starved of affection all these years as a young widow raising a son alone on little more than charcoal money. 

Seki meanwhile suffers numerous humiliations and heartbreaks, notably Moichi’s extremely unreasonable decision to bring his 50-year-old sex worker mistress to live with them in their home, but does her best to be generous and forgiving. As she points out, this house is half hers, she built it alongside Moichi and she won’t just vacate it so Moichi can do what he always does which is as he pleases (once his mother’s not around to tell him not to). Moichi perhaps pays for his feudalist follies and selfish authoritarianism in a fairly direct way which aligns him with his chastened nation waking up to the emotional costs of his mistakes, while Seki is finally rewarded. Unlike her mother-in-law she becomes a beloved neighbourhood granny giving rides to all the local kids while pulling her cart onwards towards the future like a reverse Mother Courage embracing her long absent son finally returned to her in recognition of her goodness. 


An Inn at Osaka (大阪の宿, Heinosuke Gosho, 1954)

inn at osaka cap 2Heinosuke Gosho may be most closely associated with the Chekhovian interplay between laughter and tears, but what are you to do when life is so unutterably miserable that levity seems almost offensive? By 1954, many might have assumed that society was on the way to recovery, that the promises of the new democracy so proudly affirmed in the post-war constitution would be available to all paving the way for a freer and fairer society. Of course, that wasn’t quite the case and many found themselves trapped on the periphery of the burgeoning economic miracle in which unemployment was high and the bitterness of the times had led many to believe that human decency was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

Made a year after his renowned masterpiece Where Chimneys are Seen, An Inn at Osaka (大阪の宿, Osaka no Yado) is a much less cheerful affair in which suicide and degradation linger permanently on the horizon. The hero, Mita (Shuji Sano), has been exiled from Tokyo, demoted to the Osaka office after slapping his boss in argument over immoral business practices. Much reduced in circumstances, he has been unable to find a lodging house that suits his budget, the local barman lamenting that these days most of the hotels in the area have been co-opted by sex workers. Just at that moment, a dishevelled old man pops up and says he knows of a good place where the rent is reasonable and the innkeeper kind. As you might expect, it turns out that he works there. The innkeeper is his sister and though she is not particularly nice, the place is warm and friendly with three kindly maids – Orika (Mitsuko Mito) who is constantly pressed for money by her no-good husband, Otsugi (Hiroko Kawasaki) who is forced to live apart from her son, and “modern girl” Oyone (Sachiko Hidari) who is much younger and having a fling with the inn’s other longterm resident, Noro (Jun Tatara), a sleazy gentleman who likes to throw his weight around because he co-signed the loan on the hotel.

In once sense, the city of Osaka itself is being painted as a “fall” from sophisticated Tokyo, an earthier place where people do what they have to to survive. This Mita learns to his cost when drunken geisha Uwabami (Nobuko Otowa) picks up his “luxury English-made blanket” and peels off a thread which she burns to expose its smell. Wilier than the innocent Mita she tells him he’s been had, lamenting that it’s “Osaka’s shame” that they wilfully trick people from Tokyo. Mita is irritated, slightly hurt and embarrassed to have been deceived, but affirms that it hasn’t damaged his views on Osaka because in the present society everyone is being cheated by someone somewhere. In any case, he allows himself to be bamboozled by the innkeeper’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) into tracking down the teenage girl who sold it to him, Omitsu (Kyoko Anzai), who seems upset, explaining that she bought the blanket in good faith and has been tricked herself. During their visit, Mita notices that they’re in the middle of some sort of shamanistic ritual over the sickbed of her ailing father and feels pity for her but stops short of cancelling the debt there and then.

Not cancelling the debt even though he can see Omitsu never meant to trick him and cannot afford to pay him back, is part of his rather sanctimonious rebellion against the immoralities of the post-war society. He feels wronged and thinks that getting the money back for the blanket will somehow put things right, but like many of his attempts to help those in need it eventually backfires. Mita is a good man, compassionate and honest, but he’s also disappointingly conservative in ways he hasn’t quite realised. Uwabami, who has fallen in love with him, later chides Mita that he is like a star looking down on everything from above. He doesn’t quite understand what she means, failing to grasp that what she’s telling him is that though she can see that he cares, he has a tendency to view himself as somehow “better” than the world around him and lives in silent judgement of those he believes to be fundamentally different from himself.

After a brief argument, Uwabami confesses that she feels trapped and miserable in her impossible geisha existence, just trying to make enough money to survive when too old to ply her trade. She can’t quit because she’s responsible for her whole family – her younger brother has just been laid off from his railway job and his children will go hungry without her money. She provokes Mita a little, chastising him for not caring about her on a human level only for Mita to counter that he likes her but they live in “different worlds”. Disappointed, she laments that she thought they were the same, realising that Mita’s conception of the world is defined by ideas of middle-class respectability and that he views her as occupying a lower order, forever walled off from “decent” people like himself. Though he treats her warmly and regards her as a friend, there can never be anything more between them than that.

Omitsu later shows him something similar. Having scraped together some of the money to pay him back, she arrives at the inn only for Mita to try to refuse it. Otsugi offers her some sewing work for Noro who later takes advantage of her, gossiping with the maids that she was a “bargain”. To make matters worse, Omitsu gets caught on the way out and is berated by the innkeeper for bringing the hotel into disrepute. Mita starts to feel guilty. This is, after all, largely his fault – he pushed her about the blanket out of pettiness and brought her to the inn where she has debased herself to get back the money he took from her. He tries to return it but it’s already too late. “Why do you always insist on being good?” she asks him, partly offended that he won’t take her money because he now thinks it’s tainted by immorality. “I just want to trust in people” he tells her, beginning to realise that his ‘well-meaning” gesture is both patronising and futile because if he’d really cared about helping Omitsu, he could have done it before.

Mita is good person, but like everyone else he’s flawed and human. He genuinely wants to help, for the world to be better than it is, but in his goodness allows himself to be self-involved and insensitive. The reason he didn’t get fired from his job even for so great a transgression as slapping the boss, is that his grandfather founded the company. In an effort to break with the past, he decides to sell his grandfather’s expensive French pocket watch, but retains the chain as if unable to definitively sever the connection to his privilege. To prove that he’s done it for symbolic and not financial reasons, he spends the money taking Otsugi and Orika on a day trip to Osaka castle after Orika declines his offer of money of which she is in desperate need.

“Money’s everything, what happened to humanity?” Mita asks himself, still not quite aware of his position within the system. Mita refuses to conform to the demands of the post-war era as exemplified by his boorish boss who sneeringly asks if he’s a “socialist” while dismissing him as an “intellectual” and doing illicit backroom deals to get ahead, but he does so largely passively and with little more than resentment. At his farewell dinner, he reflects that had he not come to Osaka he might have quit his job but now he’s determined to stay and try to make things better. There might be something a little sanctimonious in his new found fire born of living among the poor now he’s on his way back to Tokyo, but he has perhaps awakened to his failings and is resolving to do better.

Meanwhile, the innkeeper finds the strength to break with the odious Noro, but unlike Mita decides to throw herself into the abyss of modernity by turning the hotel in a rent by the hour kind of place complete with Western beds and tacky decor. She too feels there are two kinds of people, refusing Otsugi time off to see her son, barking that “a dog doesn’t forget what is owes its master”, while Otsugi remains powerless, aware she’s entirely out of options as a young widow in the cruel post-war economy. Orika too gives up on changing her life after finding herself unable to separate from her no-good, drunken, violent, husband, while Oyone alone seems excited by the new job possibilities at the inn, and Omitsu, despite having coldly exclaimed that she’d do whatever it takes to survive, throws herself into “honest” work, unable to attend Mita’s leaving do because now her life is one of ceaseless industry which provides her no opportunity for rest. “None of us can say we’re really happy”, Mita laments, “let’s have the dignity to laugh in the face of unhappiness”. Everybody’s tired, everybody’s disappointed and afraid, but they haven’t lost their humanity and when there’s really nothing else, all you can do is laugh. 


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Woman (女, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

Kinoshita Woman dvd cover“You must remember there are many kind people in the world” the heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Woman (女, Onna) instructs her recalcitrant boyfriend in his 1948 noir infused drama. It might as well be a mission statement for the famously humanist director, but in contrast to many of his later explorations of the power of goodness, Woman asks if a stubborn belief in the possibility of redemption for a selfish man might only be an act of mutual destruction which in itself enables the continuing decline of humanity.

Our heroine is Toshiko (Mitsuko Mito), a young woman we first meet preparing to take to the stage in her job as a chorus girl in a musical review. Toshiko’s evening is disrupted when her no good boyfriend, Tadashi (Eitaro Ozawa), turns up unexpectedly and instructs her to run away with him. Though reluctant, Toshiko does indeed find herself pulled along only to discover that Tadashi is responsible for a heinous crime for which he appears to be entirely unrepentant.

In a double irony, Tadashi’s name literally means “correct”, not just in the sense of being the indisputably right answer to a question, but also of being “just” and imbued with moral goodness. Tadashi is, however, an immensely corrupted figure. Toshiko has her doubts about him. She objects to his criminality and desperately wants him to find a way to live “honestly”, but for some reason finds it impossible to simply break with him and somewhere deep down seems to believe that he is worth saving and that she can in a sense restore him to his natural condition.

During her unwilling flight the possibility of being able to do so dwindles before Toshiko’s eyes. Tadashi’s chosen method of entertainment for the journey is reading the newspaper clippings he’s collected detailing his crimes which include burgling a middle-class home, tying up the family and their maids, and stabbing a policeman who tried to intervene. Not only is Tadashi unafraid, he seems to be proud of his actions, grinning broadly as he reads and shows off his glorious deeds to the stunned Toshiko.

As Toshiko tries to run from him, she wanders into a nearby village filled with the cheerful sound of children playing as if to throw their natural innocence in stark contrast to Tadashi’s growing corruption. Cornered he tries to convince Toshiko by softly crying as he hears the children sing the gentle folksong Akatombo, remembering that he was once an innocent child like them but that his childhood was ruined by poverty that left him responsible for supporting his siblings two of whom eventually ran away never to be seen again. This he claims caused him to despise the world and vow revenge against a society that had abandoned him. Deceived into fighting a pointless war to return to a land in ruins in which there was no work for men like him, he decided to embrace his dark side and turned to a life of crime.

If it had been just desperation, perhaps Toshiko could have understood but as she points out, if everyone thought like Tadashi the world would be in an even worse state than it already is. Times are hard for everyone, but there are still many kind people who haven’t given in to their baser instincts and continue to live honest lives helping each other as they go. Tadashi tries to convince her that he will change, that he loves her and that she is the only good thing in his life, but though there may be a grain of truth in it, his words are all calculation as his wry smirk proves when Toshiko consents to take the bento he offers her in order to suggest that he actually cares about her wellbeing.

Toshiko vacillates. The further she goes the more convinced she becomes that Tadashi is no good and cannot be redeemed. Still, she finds it hard to abandon him. She too has been deceived, corrupted by male pride. An innocent shopgirl seduced by Tadashi’s false promises she fell into the seedy underbelly of the post-war world as he forced her into bar work and then to extort her clients. The chorus girl job is perhaps a step-up, but the reason she doesn’t want to leave it is not so much a career and chance for escape as her essential character in that unlike Tadashi she is not selfish or irresponsible and does not wish to inconvenience her employers by making a sudden disappearance.

Tadashi meanwhile attempts to undermine her sense of self, snapping that “anyone could fill in” for her at the theatre while roughly grabbing her each time she attempts to move away from him. Kinoshita shoots Toshiko’s flight from claustrophobic, film noir-esque 45 degree angles. Only in brief moments of calm during her fractious conversations with Tadashi is her world restored to a natural plane, as if he is her only anchor in this decidedly off kilter world which might explain why she finds it so difficult to cut him loose. Eventually the pair end up in a pleasant resort town that apparently holds happy memories for them as a couple, but Tadashi’s childish joy as he joins in with some cheerful street musicians reminds her only of his psychopathic cruelty as he loudly sings along as if he has forgotten that he is a wanted man with blood on his hands. She remembers him throwing stones at starving children – a boy and a girl who could easily have been the brother and sister who ran away from his unhappy home, while greedily guzzling his bento without even considering that he might have shared and alleviated their suffering.

The chaos of the post-war world is made manifest by fire in the town which brings the citizens into the square and sends debris flying from windows and rooftops into the streets below. Toshiko is eventually made to realise that there is no good left in Tadashi, and, as she tells a fellow dancer in the closing scenes, even if his feelings for her are genuine she owes him nothing because them. This final declaration may be a mild misstep as it paints Toshiko and women in general as enablers of male corruption, placing the blame of societal decline on women who continue to love problematic men despite their badness in the mistaken belief that love alone can redeem them. Nevertheless, it is also a kind of defiant advocation for a new post-war world in which greed and selfishness will not be tolerated and a woman’s right to make her own decisions both in terms of her romantic future and the direction of her life in general are never in question. Toshiko has made her choice and chosen not to live in the world of men like Tadashi but in a better, kinder one free of his constraint and finally on her own terms.


Akatombo

My Love Has Been Burning (わが恋は燃えぬ, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949)

My love has been burning posterAmong the many parallels that could be drawn between the Meiji Restoration and the immediate post-war period, the most obvious is that each provided a clear opportunity for social change along with a moment of frozen introspection and internal debate about what the new promised future ought to look like. Following Victory of Women and The Love of the Actress Sumako, Kenji Mizoguchi completed a loose trilogy of films dealing with the theme of female emancipation with My Love Has Been Burning (わが恋は燃えぬ, Waga Koi wa Moenu), returning once again to the broken promises of Meiji as its heroine discovers that old ideas don’t change so quickly and even those who claim to be better will often disappoint.

The film opens in the early 1880s as a teenage Eiko Hirayama (Kinuyo Tanaka) attends a rally to celebrate the arrival of noted feminist Toshiko Kishida (Kuniko Miyake). Eiko, a committed social liberal from a conservative middle-class family, went to see her idol in the company of a childhood friend, Hayase (Eitaro Ozawa), who is shortly going to Tokyo to study and join the democratic revolution. He halfheartedly asks Eiko to come with him, but knows that she won’t because her parents will refuse permission and she will not disobey them. Soon after, Eiko’s loyalty to her family is weakened when the family’s maid, Chiyo (Mitsuko Mito), is sold to a brothel by her father. Devastated, Eiko asks her parents for the money to buy her back but they refuse, regarding Chiyo’s sacrifice as noble and in line with filial traditional. If Chiyo had refused (not that she had the right or power to refuse), her parents would starve. Eiko rushes back to the docks, but she is too late, Chiyo and Hayase have both departed for the capital and extremely different fates.

After her family situation declines still further and Eiko decides it is impossible for her to remain under her father’s roof, she makes her own way to the city but finds it not quite so welcoming as she’d assumed it to be. Hayase is not overjoyed to see her. He merely asks if she has finally decided to marry him and becomes petulant when she reaffirms her intention to study even if she implies that she intends to marry him at a later date. During his time apart from her, Hayase has been working for the fledgling Liberal Party agitating for wider democratic rights and the expansion of the franchise, though he is irritated still further when his mentor, Omoi (Ichiro Sugai) – the leader of the socialists, is supportive of Eiko’s ambitions and agrees to find a job for her working on the party paper.

Eiko’s early disappointment in Hayase is frequently mirrored in all of her subsequent dealings with men. Hayase put on a performance of believing in her cause of women’s liberation and more widely the equality of all peoples ending centuries of feudal oppression, but really just wanted to possess her body and is unwilling to accept her decision to reject him or to choose someone else. Later visiting her after she has been imprisoned on a somewhat trumped up charge, Hayase tells her that a woman is only a woman when loved by a man, and that a woman’s fulfilment is achieved through home, family, and motherhood. He tells her that he admires her for her education and talent, but that she has “forgotten” that she is a woman. He will help her remember by getting her out of prison if only she consent to marry him even though he has previously attempted to rape her and is now working for the rightwing government having betrayed the socialist cause.

Meanwhile, Omoi looks an awful lot better. He is, ostensibly, entirely committed to socialist aims, energetically engaged in promoting the Liberal Party, and trying to ensure true democracy takes root in the new Japan, lifting the common man above his subjugated position in the still prevalent feudal hierarchy. Nevertheless, he too eventually falls in love with Eiko and like Hayase is ultimately more interested in her body than their shared cause for liberal freedom. He appears to support her desire for women’s rights as an integral part of his desire to end feudal oppressions but his belief in female equality is later exposed as superficial. Eiko, reuniting with Chiyo in prison, takes her into the household she now shares with Omoi (though they are obviously not legally married) as her maid which is perhaps not entirely egalitarian but still a well intentioned attempt to free her from the life her father condemned her to.

Omoi disappoints, bedding Chiyo while Eiko is working hard at the campaign office. Confronted, he rolls his eyes and offers a boys will be boys justification before affirming that it was just a matter of sexual satisfaction and that his feelings for her haven’t changed, mildly reproving Eiko for allowing her emotional jealously to cloud her judgement in restricting his sexual freedom. If it were indeed a matter of free love, perhaps Eiko could have understood, but Omoi damns himself when looks askance at Chiyo and remarks that it doesn’t really matter because she is nothing but a servant and a concubine. All at once, Eiko sees – despite his fine talk, Omoi may have abandoned feudal ways of thinking when it comes to working men but still sees women in terms of things. If he thinks female “servants” are not worthy of respect or agency, then what is it that he has been fighting for in his supposed mission to end oppression in Japan?

Attempting to comfort a distraught Chiyo who has been so thoroughly brainwashed that she never quite expected anything “better” than being a concubine and has truly fallen for all Omoi’s pretty words about wanting to make her happy, Eiko reminds her that as long as men continue to think as Omoi does women will never be free. Freedom and equality are what will enable female happiness, and long as men refuse to recognise women not as domestic tools but as fellow human beings there can be no freedom in Japan. Mizoguchi reinforces the idea that while one is oppressed none of us is free, neatly celebrating the success of the disappointing Omoi while lamenting that his intentions for reform will not go far enough. Eiko cannot free the women of Japan on her own, but her solution is warm and committed – she will teach them to free themselves by starting a school, educating the next generation to be better than the last. Chiyo, notably, whom she never blames or rejects, will become her first pupil neatly subverting Hayase’s cruel words when she asks Eiko to teach her how to be a woman.

Unusually brutal, My Love Has Been Burning does not shy away from the violence, often sexual violence, which both women suffer both at the hands of men and of the state as they attempt to do nothing more than live freely as full human beings. It also makes plain that even those with supposedly high ideals can disappoint as they nevertheless motion towards real social good without fully committing to its entireties. A committed pro-democratic, intensely feminist statement, Mizoguchi’s lasting message lies in an affirmation of female solidarity as, unlike the self-serving Omoi, Eiko lifts her pupil up onto her own level and draws her shawl around them both committed to proceeding forward together into a fairer future.


The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960)

Wandering Princess posterAs in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.

Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.

Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.

Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.

The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.

Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.

Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.


The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.

Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら, AKA The Tree of Love/Yearning Laurel, Hiromasa Nomura, 1938)

aizen katsura posterJapan’s political climate had become difficult by 1938 with militarism in full swing. Young men were disappearing from their villages and being shipped off to war, and growing economic strife also saw young women sold into prostitution by their families. Cinema needed to be escapist and aspirational but it also needed to reflect the values of the ruling regime. Adapted from a novel by Katsutaro Kawaguchi, Aizen Katsura (愛染かつら) is an attempt to marry both of these aims whilst staying within the realm of the traditional romantic melodrama. The values are modern and even progressive, to a point, but most importantly they imply that there is always room for hope and that happy endings are always possible.

The heroine, Katsue (Kinuyo Tanaka), has found herself in a difficult position for a woman of 1938. Married off at a young age in payment of a family debt yet rejected by her husband’s family, Katsue’s fortunes fall still further when her husband passes away suddenly leaving her alone and eight months pregnant. Her daughter, Toshi (Kazuko Kojima), is now five years old and Katsue has a good job as a nurse at a local hospital. The job allows her to support herself, her daughter, and her older sister but the problem is that the hospital has a strict policy of not employing married women. Katsue isn’t married anymore, she’s a widow, but the fact that she has a daughter she is raising alone makes her familial status a grey area. She’s been hiding her daughter’s existence from her colleagues in case it costs her the job she needs to survive, but a chance encounter in a park threatens to ruin everything.

Thankfully, Katsue’s colleagues at the hospital turn out to be nice, reasonable people who respond sympathetically on hearing Katsue’s explanation about why she’d avoided telling them the truth about her daughter (and that, crucially, she had been married and the child was conceived legitimately). Her next problem occurs when the son of the hospital’s chief doctor, Kozo (Ken Uehara), returns after graduating university and the pair strike up a friendship which eventually blossoms into romance. Kozo’s father, however, is intent on arranging his marriage to a girl from another medical family – a long held tradition and, in an odd mirror of Katsue’s situation, the marriage is a way of getting additional investment for the rapidly failing clinic. Kozo asks Katsue to run away with him to Kyoto but she still hasn’t told him about Toshi or her previous marriage out of fear of losing not only her new love but her position at the hospital if he rejects her. Just as Katsue is about to go to meet Kozo at the station, Toshi falls ill.

Despite the austerity and conservatism of the times, Aizen Katsura is a very “modern” story in which Katsue’s pragmatic solution to her difficulties is praised and even encouraged. Her life has been an unhappy one in many ways – sold into an arranged marriage at 18, forced out of her hometown after rejection by her husband’s family, and finally widowed in the city, Katsue has been let down at each and every juncture. Alone with a baby, her choices were few and her only support seems to come from her older sister who has no husband of her own (at least, not one that is present), and takes care of Toshi while Katsue has to go out and earn the money to support the family.

Society does not quite know what to do with an anomaly like Katsue who cannot rely on extended family. She needs to support herself and her child but many jobs still have a marriage bar which extends to widows with children. The only options for women who can’t find a solution as elegant as Katsue’s aren’t pleasant, the hospital is a dream come true as it both pays well and is a respectable profession, but if the management found out about Toshi, Katsue could be left out in the cold with little prospect of finding more work despite her nursing qualifications.

The times may be harsh, but the world Katsue inhabits places her on the fringes of the middle classes. Kozo, as young doctor and heir to the clinic (Japanese hospitals are often family businesses) is far above her but is, in some ways, equally constrained. Whilst recognising a duty to his father, Kozo is resolute in refusing the idea of an arranged marriage conducted for financial purposes. He determines to set his own course rather than be railroaded into something which is for his father’s benefit and not his own. Deeply hurt by Katsue’s actions but not attempting to find out why she acted as she did, Kozo enters a depressive spell, sitting around resentfully and not doing much of anything. Luckily for him, the woman his father has picked out, Michiko (Sanae Takasugi), is a thoroughly good person who, once she finds out about Katsue, becomes determined to see that true love wins rather than being shackled to a moody young man and spending the rest of her life in a one sided relationship with someone still pining for a first love.

Katsue’s dreams come true only once she begins to give up on them. Leaving the hospital and returning to her home town with no firm plans, Katsue gets herself a career through luck and talent when a song she enters in a competition is picked up by a leading record label. Music rewards her financially but also gives her a sense of confidence and a purpose which puts her on more of an even footing with Kozo even if he sits in the stalls while her colleagues fill the balcony. Her salvation is both self made and something of a deus ex machina, but the broadly happy ending is intended to give hope to a hopeless age, that miracles can happen and second chances appear once two meet each other openly with full understanding and forgiving hearts.


 

Star Athlete (花形選手, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-09-23-01h52m32s055Japan in 1937 – film is propaganda, yet Hiroshi Shimizu once again does what he needs to do in managing to pay mere lip service to his studio’s aims. Star Athlete (花形選手, Hanagata senshu) is, ostensibly, a college comedy in which a group of university students debate the merits of physical vs cerebral strength and the place of the individual within the group yet it resolutely refuses to give in to the prevailing narrative of the day that those who cannot or will not conform must be left behind.

Seki (Shuji Sano) is the star of the athletics club and shares a friendly rivalry with his best friend Tani (Chishu Ryu). Tani likes to train relentlessly but Seki thinks that winning is the most important thing and perhaps it’s better to be adequately rested to compete at full strength. While the two of them are arguing about the best way to be productive, their two friends prefer to settle the matter by sleeping. The bulk of the action takes place as the guys take part in a military training exercise which takes the form of a long country march requiring an overnight stay in a distant town. The interpersonal drama deepens as Seki develops an interest in a local girl who may or may not be a prostitute, casting him into disrepute with his teammates though he’s ultimately saved by Tani (in an unconventional way).

Far from the austere and didactic nature of many similarly themed films, Shimizu allows his work to remain playful and even a little slapsticky towards the end. These are boys playing at war, splashing through lakes and waving guns around but it’s all fun to them. Their NCO maybe taking things much more seriously but none of these men is actively anticipating that this is a real experience meant to prepare them for the battlefield, just a kind of fun camping trip that they’re obliged to go on as part of their studies. The second half of the trip in which the NCO comes up with a scenario that they’re attempting to rout a number of survivors from a previous battle can’t help but seem ridiculous when their “enemies” are just local townspeople trying to go about their regular business but now frightened thinking the students are out for revenge for ruining their fun the night before.

That said, the boys do pick up some female interest in the form of a gaggle of young women who are all very taken with their fine uniforms. The women continue to track them on their way with a little of their interest returned from the young men (who are forbidden to fraternise). Singing propaganda songs as they go, the troupe also inspires a group of young boys hanging about in the village who try to join in, taken in by Tani’s mocking chant of “winning is the best” and forming a mini column of their own. After this (retrospectively) worrying development which points out the easy spread of patriotic militarism, the most overtly pro-military segment comes right at the end with an odd kind of celebration for one of the men who has received his draft card and will presumably be heading out to Manchuria and a situation which will have little in common with the pleasant boy scout antics of the previous few days.

Physical prowess is the ultimate social marker and Seki leads the pack yet, when he gets himself into trouble, his NCO reminds him that “even stars must obey the rules” and threatens to expel him though relents after Tani takes the opportunity to offer a long overdue sock to the jaw which repairs the boys’ friendship and prevents Seki being thrown out of the group. Seki’s individuality is well and truly squashed in favour of group unity though Shimizu spares us a little of his time to also point out the sorrow of the young woman from the inn, left entirely alone, excluded from all groups as the students leave.

Employing the same ghostly, elliptical technique of forward marching dissolves to advance along the roadway that proved so effective during Mr. Thank you, Shimizu makes great use of location shooting to follow the young men on the march. Though the final scene is once again a humorous one as the two sleepyheaded lazybones attempt to keep pace with the front runners, the preceding scene is another of Shimizu’s favourite sequences of people walking along a road and disappearing below a hill, singing as they go. However, rather than the cheerful, hopeful atmosphere this conveyed in Shiinomi School there is a feeling of foreboding in watching these uniformed boys march away singing, never to reappear. Shimizu casts the “training exercise” as a silly adolescent game in which women and children are allowed to mockingly join in, but he also undercuts the irony with a subtle layer of discomfort that speaks of a disquiet about the road that these young men are marching on, headlong towards an uncertain future.


 

Forget Love for Now (恋も忘れて, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1937)

vlcsnap-2016-09-21-02h01m08s449Sad stories of single mothers forced to work in the world of low entertainment are not exactly rare in pre-war Japanese cinema yet Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1937 entry, Forget Love For Now (Koi mo Wasurete) , puts his on own characteristic spin on things by looking at the situation through the eyes of the young son, Haru (Jun Yokoyama). Frustrated by both social and economic woes, little Haru’s life is blighted by loneliness and resentment culminating in tragedy for all.

Oyuki (Michiko Kuwano) is a single mother and bar hostess in a port town. Her young son Haru loves his mum even though he’s often on his own but after he makes the mistake of inviting some of the other boys back to his mother’s apartment and they end up getting doused in her rather pungent perfume, the other kids’ mothers figure out what Oyuki does for a living. Predictably they forbid their kids from associating with Haru because his mother is “a bad woman”. After repeatedly trying to keep hanging out with the other children, Haru starts skipping school to avoid the constant exclusion entirely. When Oyuki finds out about this she is very upset and has him moved to another school but the old group of kids and the new group of kids are not entirely unconnected and so Haru is unable to escape the prejudice his old group of friends hold for him.

The film never goes into how Oyuki ended up on her own with a young child or what might have happened to Haru’s father but Oyuki’s role as a single mother is not the reason the pair are excluded from the other families. Lacking other opportunities, Oyuki is forced to into work as a bar hostess even though she clearly hates it and bears it only for her son’s sake.

Her job is to entertain men in the bar to keep the drinks flowing, always smiling and flirting to keep dull men trapped in the false hope of real connection. She gets paid very little for this as we find out early on when she tries to spearhead a kind of union movement in the bar by questioning why their work costs them so much – they have to pay for their outfits, food and drink out of their own wages when the girls working at other establishments get a share of the alcohol profits which they have helped to generate but Oyuki and her friends get only their meagre salaries. Their pleas fall on hard ears with the tough as nails mama-san who isn’t going to permit any kind of mutinies in her establishment. This is made clear later on when one employee tries to quit her job at the bar and move to Kobe in search of more lucrative employment but is beaten black and blue by the bar’s goons.

Oyuki’s single ray of hope comes in the form a sinister figure lurking in the shadows outside her apartment. Eventually becoming friends with Oyuki and her son, the man represents a possible happy ending in which he beats the depression, finds a better job and takes them both away from this world of poverty of degradation. Needless to say this is not to be – the man’s attempts to find a solution to everyone’s problems take to long and he is simply too late. Not only that, his well meaning words of advice to Haru that he should make sure to win against the bullies next time have disastrous consequences.

In essence, Forget Love For Now is “hahamono” in which Oyuki bravely sacrifices everything of herself in her son’s name, committed to the idea that he will progress through his education to university and repay all of her efforts by becoming a fine man. Society, whilst praising the idea of the self sacrificing mother, does not approve of the things she has to do in that very sacrifice she’s making and refuses to allow her success in her mission. The true tragedy is that the little boy, Haru, is aware on some level of everything his mother is doing for him and loves her so much that he is willing to sacrifice himself for her – rendering her long years of suffering entirely pointless.

In the end, Oyuki has nothing. As the title of the film tells us, not even love is permitted to her as she loses both her son and the possibility of romance as her well meaning man makes a now equally pointless sacrifice of his own. Forget Love For Now is somewhat atypical in Shimizu’s output as it ends with no hope in sight, strongly condemning this rigid society which forces women to act in a way of which it disapproves and then refuses to support them when they do. Shooting mostly on stage sets rather than the naturalistic settings featured in much of his other work, Shimizu crafts an emotionally devastating tale of maternal sacrifice cruelly frustrated by a cold and unfeeling society.


 

I Will Buy You (あなた買います, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)

20140731_762129In I will Buy You (あなた買います, Anata Kaimasu, a provocative title if there ever was one), Kobayashi may have moved away from directly referencing the war but he’s still far from happy with the state of his nation. Taking what should be a light hearted topic of a much loved sport which is assumed to bring joy and happiness to a hard working nation, I Will Buy You exposes the veniality not only of the baseball industry but by implication the society as a whole.

Kishimoto works as a scout for a popular Tokyo baseball team. His job is to find the promising young players and charm them into accepting a contract before any of the other teams get to them. His first assignment doesn’t go well when he arrives at an ace pitcher’s home only to be told the subject in question is recovering from having lost a finger in a workplace accident. No major league career for him – Kishimoto heads home without even introducing himself. The next prospect is very exciting – a semi-well known college ball player who might be persuaded to turn pro. However, the student, Kurita, is “managed” by a benefactor, Kyuki (whose name literally means “ball spirit” in Japanese) who seems to be a difficult man to deal with. Nevertheless, Kishimoto is young, ambitious and determined to get Kurita on side by any means possible.

It’s just baseball, one might think but it’s almost as if we’re playing for souls. Everyone is lying, everyone is double crossing everybody else and everyone has their own interests at heart all the while swearing they only want the best for Kurita. Kurita has become a trophy, no one has even thought to ask him if he actually wants to keep playing baseball. He’s no no longer a person for them so much as a flag to be captured. This might actually work out quite well for Kurita himself who, it turns out, is far from the country bumpkin everyone has him pegged as. Though surrounded by carping relatives who are also all intent on exploiting his talent, the possibility of Kurita suddenly discovering the power to make his own decisions is a threat to everyone that they haven’t even considered yet.

Kyuki himself is the bad guy we’ve all been set up to be suspicious of but may actually turn out to be the most decent hustler in the picture. They say he spied for the Chinese during the war but is it a rumour you can really believe or just the jealous slurs of his various rivals? He himself says he taught Chinese girls to use the bayonet and carries an air of aloofness that makes him seem untrustworthy. He’s bankrolled Kurita’s education and taken on the position of a father to him over the last four years but how much of that is genuine feeling and how much financial investment? Kyuki is a married father with a family out of town but is sort of living with the older sister of Kurita’s girlfriend which is an awkward situation in itself. He also claims to have a serious gallstone problem which requires an operation though others claim he’s putting it on. Who is Kyuki, with his suspiciously apt name and hard nosed attitude can we trust him, or not?

I Will Buy You is a characteristically angry and cynical effort from Kobayashi and though it’s still a fairly early work carries some of his later technical prowess. Stripping the mask away from what is assumed to be a gentle pastime, the film lays bare the money hungry desperation of post-war Japan. Money ruins everything, even something as innocent as baseball. The Kurita from the end of the film is not the idealistic young student who came to Tokyo but a canny self-interested individual. Whether or not this transformation, and the accompanying transformation of Kishimoto whose eyes have been well and truly opened, is for the better or not maybe a matter of personal perspective but it’s not hard to guess where Kobayashi stands.


I Will Buy You is the second of four early films from Masaki Kobayashi available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System DVD boxset.

 

Jubilation Street 歓呼の町 (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1944)

20138117_1_IMG_FIX_700x700The third entry in Criterion’s Kinoshita and World War II box set takes a decidedly darker turn than either of its predecessors. Made a little later in 1944, Jubilation Street is surprising addition, not least because for the majority of its running time it’s hard to see how it could have ever have fulfilled the propaganda requirements of the time. Its title is almost ironic, there’s nothing here but an inevitable sadness and eternal partings both between people and between eras. It’s not until the closing moments of the film that anything even remotely “inspirational” occurs, and even then it’s all a little bit tacked on and feels like a token epilogue to please the censors. With far less obvious comedy moments Jubilation Street is taking us somewhere significantly darker, but is not without Kinoshita’s characteristic sympathy.

Jubilation Street is an old-fashioned row of modest housing home to a small community of families who’ve each lived there for many years. Now they’re all being “relocated” because the government wants the land for the war effort. Some are ready to leave, others are not – either because they feel too old to start again somewhere else or simply because they don’t want to be split up from the people they’ve shared their lives with. The family who own the printer’s shop want to finish their last few orders and wait until their baby is born, the crotchety old man who runs the bath house just doesn’t want to go anywhere and Mrs. Furukawa is afraid to leave in case the husband who walked out on her and their son ten years previously finally comes home. Shingo, Mrs. Furukawa’s son, is a test pilot in the air force and wants to marry childhood sweetheart Takako, though her parents are against it given his family circumstances and dangerous work. Just in the knick of time, Mr. Furukawa makes a shocking reappearance, unbeknownst to his wife and son but will his ten years away with nary a word damage his chances of a happy reunion? With the evacuation date drawing nearer, important decisions will have to be made, and made in a hurry.

There may have been hope and happiness in this little street once, but now there’s just waiting and desperation. Towards the beginning of the film, the war still feels something far off – the relocation programme might as well be for a new dam or a modern housing development as much as being down to a war. Shingo is the only person directly involved with anything military and though his work is dangerous in one sense he gets to live at home with his mother and nothing seems very different than before. Towards the end, however, a traumatic event will drop the devastation of war right into the middle of this little community with as much force as any bomb. Doomed romance, shattered dreams, a lifetime’s work going for nothing – there’s nothing to celebrate here. Having undergone a tragedy and forced out of their homes, the community each vow they’re going to honour the sacrifices made by each doing their best for the war effort, but it comes dangerously close to being insulting. “So you’ve lost people, you might have lost your home or your business or a child but that just means you have to work even harder to make your loss mean something”. A fairly bleak message, if understandable given the circumstances, but it’s debatable that it’s one a worried populace would have wanted to receive in the normally escapist realms of the cinema.

It’s remarkably ambiguous for a film of its time. Perhaps because, again, he kept the war effort in the background, Kinoshita was able to get away with showing a less “jubilant” group of people each facing their various difficulties with an enviable degree of stoicism (coupled with their determined resolutions at the end). There’s no way you could read Jubilation Street as a “pro-war” film. Though it stops short of any kind of direct criticism, war (and even in one case the whole idea of Manchuria) has ruined each of these people’s lives, destroyed their community and cast them adrift in an uncertain world. What sort of glorious nation is this, and was it worth all this sacrifice?

Jubilation Street is not as well preserved as either Port of Flowers or The Living Magoroku, though the actual film is fine for the most part the soundtrack is very badly damaged with strong hiss and distortion throughout. However, it doesn’t detract from the experience too much and given that it’s a minor miracle it survives at all you can’t complain. Kinoshita has once again tried to put the lives of ordinary people up on screen with all the warmth, empathy and truth that was permitted to him at the time. The last days of Jubilation Street were not altogether happy ones, but as a metaphor for a place and time it’s about as close as you’d be allowed to explore.